Rapid mood swing: PNAS issues Expression of Concern for controversial Facebook study

08/01/2014 09:30

by Ivan Oransky


The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is subjecting a much-criticized study involving Facebook that it published just two weeks ago to an Expression of Concern.

From the abstract of the original study:  [http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/29/1320040111.full.pdf]


In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and non-verbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

In other words, the researchers manipulated hundreds of thusands of Facebook feeds to see what effect it would have.


Critics and there were many online said the study violated ethical norms because it did not alert participants that they were taking part. The standard for studies involving human subjects is that they be approved by an institutional review board (IRB). In a story titled Even the Editor of Facebook's Mood Study Thought It Was Creepy, referring to Susan Fiske, who edited the paper for PNAS, The Atlantic reports:


There seems to be a question of whether Facebook actually went through an IRBIn a Facebook post on Sunday, study author Adam Kramer referenced 'internal review practices.' Forbes report, citing an unnamed source, said that Facebook only used an internal review. When I asked Fiske to clarify, she told me the researchers revision letter said they had Cornell IRB approval as a ˜pre-existing dataset" presumably from FB, who seems to have reviewed it as well in some unspecified way. Under IRB regulations, pre-existing dataset would have been approved previously and someone is just analyzing data already collected, often by someone else.


The mention of a 'pre-existing dataset' here matters because, as Fiske explained in a follow-up email, presumably the data already existed when they applied to Cornell IRB. (She also notes: "I am not second-guessing the decision.")


Here's the Expression of Concern, signed by editor-in-chief Inder Verma:  [http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/07/02/1412469111.full.pdf+html]


PNAS is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding the following article: "Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks", by Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock, which appeared in issue 24, June 17, 2014, of Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (111:8788–8790; first published June 2, 2014; 10.1073/pnas.1320040111). This paper represents an important and emerging area of social science research that needs to be approached with sensitivity and with vigilance regarding personal privacy issues. Questions have been raised about the principles of informed consent and opportunity to opt out in connection with the research in this paper. The authors noted in their paper, [The work] was consistent with Facebook's Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research. {So simply signing up for any social networking service automatically grants 'informed consent' for whatever manipulative mind control research is currently underway. You can bet that whatever techniques prove useful will be employed against political dissidents and it gives one new perspective on how the 'News' is spun in favor of the ruling class.. - Ed}


When the authors prepared their paper for publication in PNAS, they stated that: "Because this experiment was conducted by Facebook, Inc. for internal purposes, the Cornell University IRB [Institutional Review Board] determined that the project did not fall under Cornell's Human Research Protection Program." This statement has since been confirmed by Cornell University.


Obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out are best practices in most instances under the US Department of Health and Human Services Policy for the Protection of Human Research Subjects (the Common Rule). Adherence to the Common Rule is PNAS policy, but as a private company Facebook was under no obligation to conform to the provisions of the Common Rule when it collected the data used by the authors, and the Common Rule does not preclude their use of the data. Based on the information provided by the authors, PNAS editors deemed it appropriate to publish the paper. It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out.


In press materials, the journal adds:


Please note that PNAS is also preparing a correction to change co-author Jamie Guillory's affiliation on the original research paper from her current affiliation of University of California, San Francisco to Cornell University, where she was a graduate student at the time of the study.


The Expression of Concern is a bit difficult to parse. It seems to suggest that the authors didn't do everything they were supposed to in order to publish in PNAS, but that the journal allowed them to publish anyway. Now, after a lot of criticism, the journal is somehow suggesting that the authors should have given them more details. But it's not clear how those details would have changed the fact that the researchers didn't get IRB approval, which seems to be a requirement for publishing in PNAS.


There are apparently several buses under which various people are being thrown. Or PNAS has just raided Rick's Club American and is shocked, shocked! that there's something amiss.



Ivan Oransky is vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today.  He taught medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, and is also vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. He has been executive editor of Reuters Health, managing editor, online, of Scientific American, deputy editor of The Scientist, and editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Praxis Post.  For three years, He taught in the health and medicine track at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.  The article first appeared here.