Sunday, October 12, 2014

Facebook conducted a controversial study that manipulated users’ news feeds. Facebook did not only got negative reactions from its users, it also got on the wrong side of Cornell University.

Cornell University’s ethics board made clear that it did not pre-approve the study. Hence, Facebook should not have had “implied” user permission to conduct the study as researchers previously claimed.

To recap: researchers at Facebook tweaked what hundreds of thousands of users saw in their news feeds. They manipulated content to be more positive or negative than normal in an attempt to manipulate the users’ mood. The users’ status updates were analyzed to detect if the content affected what those users wrote on Facebook.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that, Facebook users’ moods did indeed were affected by what they saw in their news feeds. Users who saw more negative posts would write more negative things on their own walls, and likewise for positive posts.

Enter Cornell. The University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) did approve the use of Facebook’s “pre-existing data set” for the experiment. The study was published in the June 17 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So far, so good.

However, Cornell University issued a statement clarifying that the Facebook experiment was conducted before the IRB was consulted. Although one of Cornell professors (Jeffrey Hancock) as well as a doctoral student (Jamie Guillory) worked with Facebook on the study, Cornell went out of its way to distance itself from the research.

A classic case of cold feet? Or does Cornell fear to be associated with a behemoth like Facebook? Or is it a matter of defending the ivory tower that it academia?

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