I have a couple of questions for anyone defending the ethics of Facebook’s recent “emotional contagion” experiment on nearly 700,000 unsuspecting users: would it be OK to mess with the heads of your closest friends and relatives — your children, even — without their knowledge?
If you say yes, what if a few of those friends and relatives suffered from chronic depression? What if one or two of those are suicidal? Is it still OK to tweak their Facebook news feeds so they get more bad news than good, to see how that might make them feel?
The Facebook researchers did exactly that. Now think about these statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health:
- During any 12-month period, around 6.7 percent of the US adult population experiences a “major depressive disorder.” That’s not just feeling a little down or blue for a day or two; that’s feeling so depressed for weeks or more that they can’t function properly in their daily lives, to the point their condition is distressing the people who care about them.
- During that same time period, about 2 percent of adults will have “severe” depression, which can include thoughts of suicide.
In other words, of the 689,003 Facebook users who were unwitting guinea pigs in the emotional contagion experiment, it’s likely that more than 46,000 were already suffering from depression … with almost 14,000 of them having severe symptoms. Even assuming half of those received the positive news feeds as opposed to the negative ones, that’s 23,000 people with depression — including 7,000 severely depressed people — who were used as test subjects without their knowledge or approval to see if bad news would make them feel even worse.
That’s more than unethical. It’s venturing into a minefield with both legal and moral implications. And it’s truly frightening that some people think that’s absolutely OK.