Facebook Research

| March 21, 2020


Homework #20 – Questions on “What Facebook Knows”

Based on your reading of the article “What Facebook Knows” by Tom Simonite, consider the distinction between the two research approaches used by Facebook to explore human social interaction:
1) Analysis of the enormous amount of data they collect concerning users’ on-line social behaviors, versus
2) Selective modification of how Facebook works in order to set-up two distinct groups of users, one with the normal Facebook behavior and one with the modified behavior, and observing the differences in social interactions between the two groups. 
Which approach to research represents the observational experimental approach and which represents the controlled experimental approach? Explain. Discuss the ethical issues in doing such research in an environment such as Facebook (consider the number of users, appropriate informed consent, need for review by an IRB, etc.). Does the approach in (1) have more or less ethical issues than the approach in (2)? Why or why not? – be specific! What is your own opinion of what Facebook is doing or could do with the information it has acquired and can continue to acquire? Do you have any concerns about their ability to influence people’s behavior such as those illustrated by their efforts to increase organ donation or voter turnout? Why or why not (be sure that you consider the possibility that they might try to influence behavior on a particular subject that you do not necessarily agree with!)? 


Name of Student

Name of Professor

English 101 Paper

19 November 2014

Facebook Research

The observational experimental approach is the one that entails analyzing data collected concerning the online social behaviors of users. This approach is observational in the sense that the researchers do not alter the environment in which the behavior occurs but rather act merely as passive observers. On the other hand, research that represents the controlled experimental approach is the one that involves selectively modifying how Facebook works with a view to establishing two groups of users, one with a modified behavior, and the other with normal Facebook behavior. In the latter approach, researchers seek to determine how the two distinct groups interact with each other. This essentially means that the researchers derive their findings based on the nature and magnitude of control that they exert over the environment in which the behavior occurs.


Doing research on Facebook raises numerous ethical questions. For instance, the objective of informed consent may not be realistically achieved because of the massive number of participants involved. The most serious ethical concerns were raised in relation to the controlled experimental approach where users’ timelines were tweaked to see how they would react (Simonite 8). Controversy arose in relation to whether the Institutional Review Board at Cornell University, whose staff participated in the study, was notified before the study was conducted.

The observational experimental approach has fewer ethical issues than the controlled experimental approach. This is because in the latter approach, Facebook users may feel that they were created, that they were discretely coerced into participating in a study. In the former approach, most users may argue that Facebook did not evoke any ethical issues because it relied on data that had been willingly made available to the public by those users.

I am profoundly worried about what Facebook might decide to do with the information it has already acquired about people’s activities, relationships, professions, hobbies, and interests. Unscrupulous companies might purchase this data and use it to coerce people into adopting unacceptable social behaviors. Facebook is now a global movement that has the power to influence how people lead their lives. This was demonstrated in the social-network company’s efforts to increase voter turnout and organ donation. Whereas these are worthy causes, no legal framework is in place to ensure that they are not abused. For example, someone at Facebook’s offices might disclose confidential medical information of organ donors or the political affiliation of voters. An even worse scenario is one where the company might try to influence people who do not wish to donate organs to do so by making them feel like they are the only ones left out.

Works Cited

Simonite, Tom.What Facebook Knows. MIT Technology Review, June 13, 2012. Online.

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