Is Facebook an ethical company? (Last Lesson)

Let’s discuss “business ethics” in our next-to-last class (4/18). Thus far, we’ve focused on the founding and initial growth of Facebook; let’s now fast forward to Facebook’s January 2012 “emotional contagion experiment,” a massive online psychology experiment it secretly carried out on 689,003 unwitting Facebook users. (By the way, Facebook eventually published the inconclusive results of its mood affiliation experiment in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2014. You can read Facebook’s research paper here.) The Professor will begin our last class with the following questions: Did Facebook act ethically when it ran this experiment? From an ethical perspective, was this experiment “fair” or “foul”?

For your reference, wrote up a very helpful overview of the main ethical issues in the Facebook experiment. Although many armchair philosophers have concluded that Facebook’s secret experiment is “scandalous,” “violates accepted research ethics,” and “should never have been performed,” Facebook also has some defenders. For example, our colleague Michelle Meyer wrote up this well-reasoned defense of Facebook’s research methods. Here is one excerpt:

But if it is ethically permissible for Facebook to offer a service that carries unknown emotional risks, and to alter that service to improve user experience, then it should be allowed — and encouraged — to try to quantify those risks and publish the results.

Although we agree with Professor Meyer’s argument on the grounds that more knowledge is generally better than less knowledge, what about the problem of consent? That is, even if these secret online experiments are useful from a consequentialist or utilitarian perspective, are they not still unethical (maybe even illegal) from a contractarian or Kantian perspective?

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Fair or foul?

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