Law & Ethics 'Literature Review' chapter

Excerpt from 'Literature Review' chapter :

Unconsented Facebook Behavioral User Research

Facebook's 2012 involvement in a behavioral experiment on a series of its unknowing users

Case Presentation

There is much controversy with regard to Facebook's role in a scandal involving users being followed and exploited. The company is responsible for performing a study where 689,003 individuals on Facebook were manipulated in an attempt to determine how particular ideas influenced them. These respective users were divided in two groups: one of them was provided with news feeds containing positive information while the other was provided with news feeds containing negative information. As a consequence of the experiment, analysts determined that the first group was more likely to make positive posts while the second was inclined to post negative ideas.

Facebook's attempt to interfere with people's lives and analyze how this affected them raised a series of questions:

Was this experiment ethical?

Was this experiment legal?

To what degree did the experiment affect individuals involved?

Taking these questions into account, one can gain a more complex understanding of the event's implications. Accepted standards of research are very different from the ones that Facebook considered when devising the experiment. It actually seems that the company had a limited comprehension of the fact that the trial went beyond generally accepted boundaries. This is why the company's attempt to acknowledge culpability in the situation is intriguing -- Facebook largely considered that it had the right to use information on its social network with the purpose to perform a series of internal operations, including testing the way that information affected its users.

The fact that Facebook has been recognized for its benefits in numerous occasions contributes to having the masses acknowledge the social platform's importance for society as a whole. Many efforts regarding the social network entailed teachers communicating with students and making it possible for the latter to have access to information they would otherwise have problems finding. "The Facebook student-centered approach constitutes a perfect pair for the future of education and for future educational trends and models." (Patrut & Patrut 99) Taking this into account

Literature review

The emotional manipulation experiment enabled the masses to acknowledge that the authorities are not as strict as one might be inclined to think when considering companies engaging in behavioral studies without the consent of individuals who are being studied. It all comes down to the way that companies like Facebook design their terms of service and their privacy policy. Through devising these respective texts in ways that make it difficult and almost impossible for users to understand how their information is used, companies manage to get the upper hand in potential conflicts.

Facebook's involvement in the emotional manipulation scandal led to the company emphasizing its perfectly legal role in the overall state of affairs. Although the company behaved unethically, it did not violate any laws, as its terms of service and privacy policy place it in a position where it can say that a user's willingness to have a Facebook account indirectly has the respective individual acknowledge that he or she is unhesitant about taking part in a series of experiments that the company might be interested in performing.

Adam D.I. Kramer, the person in charge of the experiment, provided the general public with information gathered during the study and seemed unhesitant about openly admitting that the company performed tests on its users. Facebook was apparently concerned about people being less likely to visit the social network if they were coming across negative information. "We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content lead to people feeling negative or left out." (Kramer) Considering Kramer's attitude with regard to the experiment, it would seem that Facebook generally intended to have the study play an important role in its marketing techniques. The company basically wanted to determine ways in which it could keep users still interested in it while providing them with the chance to actually see part of the posts that they were interested in seeing.

While some users might claim that Facebook performed an illegal act when experimenting on human beings, the truth is that the people who took part in the trial actually agreed to it. The company's data use policy that users have to agree to when creating their accounts relates to how people need to provide their consent for data to be used for a series of purposes. Facebook's policy relates to how information on the social network may be used "for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement." (Information we receive and how it is used)

"Obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out are best practices in most instances under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Policy for the Protection of Human Research Subjects (the "Common Rule")" (Editorial Expression of Concern and Correction)

When considering the "Common Rule," most would be inclined to consider that Facebook needed to act in agreement to it and that its actions were thus illegal. However, the fact that the company is a private entity means that the legislation has no authority over its actions. It would be ignorant for someone to claim that all of the company's practices were in agreement with the law, especially considering data collection and the way that it targeted subjects.

This was not the first time when Facebook was used with the purpose of performing an experiment. The social order is chosen by many for this purpose as a consequence of the convenience associated with taking on such a mission. One of the most recognized Facebook experiments involved Anders Colding-Jorgensen, a Danish psychologist who started a Facebook campaign aimed at preventing the authorities from demolishing a famous fountain in Copenhagen. The authorities did not actually want to demolish the edifice, as Jorgensen simply wanted to test people in Copenhagen and the degree to which they were willing to lobby against the imaginary destruction of a structure they cared for (Morozov).


Jorgensen obviously did not inform individuals taking part in his experiment regarding the way that their information was going to be used. In contrast to Facebook, the Danish psychologist can actually be considered to have performed an illegal act when going through with the experiment. Even with this, the trial makes it possible for one to gain a more complex understanding of how people can unwillingly get actively involved in an experiment as a consequence of their naivety. In a way, individuals joining Facebook and attempting to take legal action against the company as a consequence of being part of an experiment can be considered naive for their failure to understand that such an experiment is actually lawful.

Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act relates to how companies should refrain from putting across unfair trade practices and to how consent needs to be considered when dealing with a situation involving it using information regarding its consumers. To a certain degree, it would be safe to say that Facebook is responsible for having engaged in "unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce." (Federal Trade Commission Act Section 5: Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices) Even with this, this matter is particularly divisive and it would be wrong for someone to believe that this would be enough to reach a conclusion concerning Facebook's experiment.

When Facebook was first developed, its creators likely failed to foresee the legal difficulties that the company would bring on through the years. From the very first years that the company was started it became clear that it would generate a series of controversies. The company had to pay $65 million on account of how its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, had stolen the idea of the social network from some of his acquaintances. "Facebook has also been sued repeatedly for violating users' privacy (such as by disseminating private information to third parties for commercial purposes)." (Cross & Miller 3) This and numerous other accounts involving the company being sued for violating people's privacy contributes to making Facebook one of the most controversial companies in the world (Cross & Miller 3). Although Facebook's management acknowledge the fact that it played an active role in exploiting users by using their information against their will, the way that it operates makes it difficult and almost impossible for many of these individuals to take their problems to court. It would thus be safe to say that the company thought ahead when devising its system of legal actions -- it had a complex understanding of laws associated with the field it is operating in and sought assistance from a multitude of legal advisors in an attempt to come in possession of tools it can use with the purpse of protecting its interests.

While ethics is not always related to the legality of one's actions, it is an important factor when considering a business' success. "Often, as in several of the claims against Facebook discussed above, disputes arise in…

Sources Used in Document:

Works cited:

Bakan, J. "Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children." (Simon and Schuster, 9 Aug 2011)

Hill, K. "Facebook Added 'Research' To User Agreement 4 Months After Emotion Manipulation Study." Retrieved November 17, 2014, from

Jacobsen, D., & Idziorek, J. "Computer Security Literacy: Staying Safe in a Digital World." (CRC Press, 27 Nov 2012)

Kramer, A.D.I. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from

Cite This 'Literature Review' chapter:

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