Why are research ethics important? A case study on Facebook’s shady research techniques.


“Ethical research ensures the researcher is ‘doing the right thing’ by the project, its participants and society at large.”(Weerakkody, Niranjala Damayanthi, 2008.)

When conducting any form of research, it is always important to maintain a strong moral compass and operate in an ethical manner in order to prevent any public media altercations or face legality issues. Ethical research involves the researcher conducting research in a proper and moral way, to ensure that all participants involved feel secure and with confidentiality. To ensure that researchers are conducting ethical research there are several guidelines set in place by Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) and Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)(Weerakkody, Niranjala Damayanthi, 2008.) The researcher must always keep in mind that fact that different individuals will hold different ideals and expectations when it comes to what is acceptable to ask and expect of these research participants/subjects in order to operate and conduct research in an idyllic environment to achieve the best results.

I’ve chosen a research ethics case study which is well-suited to the media and communications subject to focus on; in 2014 Facebook conducted an “Emotional Manipulation Study” on its users (689,003 people) without them knowing or consenting to be watched by the media monopoly. This outraged users of the social media site and raised several concerns over the privacy of users, as the research was then published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, leaving questions being asked of how Facebook carries out such research on its users without their consent.

By doing so, Facebook clearly breached confidentiality guidelines from the Research Ethics Committee of its users by unethically carrying out this study without any warning. In his article on the topic, David Hunter rightly points out that Facebook has indeed conducted their study without any consent at all from its users. Although it was argued that the study was conducted under the Common Rule which: “requires oversight by a research ethics committee and adherence with common practices regarding informed consent only if a study receives federal funding or is associated with an institution receiving federal funding.”(Hunter, 2014) But after extensive research, it was found that “ clauses regarding research were only added to this policy four months after the experiment took place.”(Hunter, 2014), deeming the study undertaken by Facebook to be seemingly less ethical than users were assured it was.

Looking back on the ethics involved in conducting research, it is clear that Facebook certainly did not conduct their user-generated research in a way that can be seen as right or ethical; instead, they deceived their users and gathered the personal information of 689,003 of its users without them having any idea they were being watched. If we return to the journal article “Research ethics in media and communication”, the case of the unethical Facebook research study, its participants can be seen as involuntary participants in an unequal power relation between the researchers (Facebook) and the participants (the users). This journal article states that: “research seeks personal information, such as demographic details… which not all participants are willing to divulge.” (Weerakkody, Niranjala, Damayanthi, 2008.) This statement raises questions as to why Facebook would assume they could obtain personal information from its users without their consent.

I’d like to finish with a quote from David Hunter’s article, which I feel summates the constant difficulties associated with ethics in research:

“The history of research ethics has shown us, unfortunately, that if we want research participants to be treated with respect – and research to be conducted in line with ethical principles – then we ought to regulate research with review by an independent research ethics committee.”(Hunter, 2014)

Thanks for reading 🙂



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