The act of social science research with human subjects has long been a controversy for justifiable reasons. As history has shown in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, 1971), the lack of protection for individuals has an adverse effect on their mental health. While the recent research study, entitled Experimental Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks, is important and provides insight into the role of social media on behavior, it does not follow national and international ethics on research with human subjects. This can have a cataclysmic impact on the socioemotional health of individuals unaware of their participation.
While Facebook, Inc. and Mr. Kramer do not have an institutional (i.e., institution of higher education) affiliation, they are nonetheless bound by federal regulations on human subjects research. Specifically, they are bound as “any research involving the collection of existing data, documents, records, pathological specimens, or diagnostic specimens, if these sources are publicly available or if the information is recorded by the investigator in such a manner that subjects cannot be identified, directly or through identifiers to the subjects” (NIH). The co-investigators, Jamie Guillroy and Jeffrey Hancock, on the other hand, have institutional affiliations. As such, they are bound by federal regulations to “demonstrate that projects which are conducted by or subject to the approval of department or agency heads.”
According to the Federal Code of Regulations on Public Welfare, institutions must “prepare, and maintain adequate documentation of IRB activities,” “copies of all research proposals reviewed, scientific evaluations, if any, that accompany the proposals, approved sample consent documents, progress reports submitted by investigators, and reports of injuries to subjects,” and “copies of all correspondence between the IRB and the investigators.”
Besides the argument that blind data collection was justified, the investigators blatantly ignored the subsection on the general requirements for informed consent. That is, no investigator may involve a human being as a subject in research covered by this policy unless the investigator has obtained the legally effective informed consent of the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative.”
There is no doubt that Facebook, Inc. has overstepped its boundaries and opened the door to future unethical research with human participants. In order to prevent the reoccurrence of such careless and tragic research in the future, the public must be made aware of their rights. I have contacted Mr. Kramer and each institution separately requesting copies of all records related to the aforementioned study.