Unexpected expectations: Public reaction to the Facebook emotional contagion study

Hallinan, Blake; Brubaker, Jed R; Fiesler, Casey
New Media & Society

How to ethically conduct online platform-based research remains an unsettled issue and the source of continued controversy. The Facebook emotional contagion study, in which researchers altered Facebook News Feeds to determine whether exposure to emotional content influences a user’s mood, has been one focal point of these discussions. The intense negative reaction by the media and public came as a surprise to those involved—but what prompted this reaction? We approach the Facebook study as a mediated controversy that reveals disconnects between how scholars, technologists, and the public understand platform-based research. We examine the controversy from the bottom up, analyzing public reactions expressed in comments on news articles. Our analysis reveals fundamental disagreements about what Facebook is and what a user’s relationship to it should be. We argue that these divergent responses emphasize the contextual nature of technology and research ethics, and conclude with a relational and contextual approach to ethical decision-making.