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Twitter Chat: The ethics of Facebook’s mood manipulation study

PBS NewsHour reported this week on a controversial emotional study conducted by Facebook without users’ consent. The study was conducted back in 2012, but came to light only after the results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America last month. The impact of the study was, in the words of Facebook data scientist and experimenter Adam Kramer, “the minimal amount to statistically detect it.” However, the impact of its discovery has been huge.

Many NewsHour followers responded to our report, or expressed their views via social media. Some were outraged by the experiment, and said they planned to dial back their use of the site or even delete their accounts. Others were ambivalent, and felt that by agreeing to the site’s Terms of Service they had surrendered their right to object.

“People don’t read TOS and then get upset when FB does something that TOS allows,” said Carrie Phisher.

Anthony J. Alfidi went further in saying, “Facebook’s digits — its news feeds, like buttons, and functions — are its corporate property. The company may adjust as it sees fit, with no notice necessary.

Many disagreed, and said the site’s ToS agreement was too vague to serve as a suitable stand-in for informed consent. NewsHour Facebook follower Deborah Sabo said “I disagree that ToS is consent to be experimented upon. ToS allows them to use data for research—i.e. to collect information from our existing behavior. It doesn’t say they can purposefully manipulate our behavior and emotions in a directed experiment for their marketing or any other ‘research’ purposes without our prior knowledge and consent.”

We took the conversation to Twitter in this week’s #NewsHourChats. Wall Street Journal reporter Reed Albergotti joined us to discuss the many ethical questions circulating around the study. Read the full conversation below.