Jeff Hancock: The Facebook Study and Social Media Ethics

Jeff HancockWith the proliferation of social media in our daily lives, the way we communicate has been completely transformed. Our guest is Jeff Hancock, formerly a professor of information science and communication at Cornell and currently a communications professor at Stanford, who is well known for his research and TED Talk on how people use deception with technology. Play the podcast in the player below or download it to your computer, smart phone, or tablet. Or, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, listen on Google Play Music, or sign up to be notified when a new podcast is available.

Jeff points out that while human language evolved in such a way that everything we said disappeared, that is no longer the case. Our everyday communication is now produced online and via mobile devices, where it is tracked and recorded.

Facebook may be the most impactful social media platform on our social lives, so Jeff worked with Facebook to conduct a study about how the newsfeed can affect our emotions. The response to that study gave Jeff a front row seat to the paradigm shift on ethical issues involved with Facebook.

The Facebook Study

The Facebook study revolved around omitting certain posts, containing either positive or negative emotion words, from people's newsfeeds. The purpose of the study was to determine if the emotions expressed by people in the newsfeed affected a Facebook user’s own use of emotional language. The answer was yes: Evidence showed that an emotional contagion occurred among Facebook users—their own emotional language reflected that which they saw in their news feeds.

"The news feed matters"
The response to the Facebook study was as interesting as the results. When people realized that their newsfeed had been experimented with, they had two major responses: 1) shock that they had been part of an academic experiment without their consent, and 2) shock to learn that the newsfeed is manipulated. These reactions shed light on how important Facebook is in people’s lives. As Jeff explains, "the news feed matters" to people, and Facebook is not as trivial as people think—it affects people’s social lives.

Social Media Studies and Informed Consent

Another interesting finding from the study was that people are especially sensitive to consent issues when an academic study is involved. Whereas many have become accustomed to being manipulated by advertising and marketing by private corporations, people feel that scientific research involves more of a presence of rights.

The conversations resulting from the Facebook study produced the following key takeaways:

  1. Informed consent is especially important for behavioral studies at scale, which involve large numbers of people.
  2. The legal language around consent needs to become easier for people to read and understand.
  3. Debriefing should occur after a study to give participants the option to get more involved or to remove their data from the study.
  4. Researchers and IRBs are still figuring out how to move away from the medical model and toward a model that fits social science, which are comparatively minimal risk studies.
  5. There needs to be more collaboration between IRBs and the institutions conducting these studies.