Controversy around Ethics of Facebook’s Study is Missing the Real Issue

Blog post by Dr Murray Goulden – Horizon Research Fellow


Facebook came in for considerable criticism recently when they revealed that, over a one week period in 2012, they conducted a study on 689,000 users. By filtering the status updates that appeared on individuals’ new feeds, the study set out to measure “emotional contagion”, a rather hyperbolic term for peer effects on the emotional state of individuals. The study concludes that Facebook users more exposed to positive updates from contacts in turn posted more positive updates, and less negatives ones, themselves. The result for those exposed to more negative updates was the opposite.

Some of the claims made by the study are open to challenge, but here I’m interested in the response to it. I’ll go on to argue that we should actually be grateful to Facebook for this study.

Criticism revolved around two interrelated themes: manipulation and consent. Of the first, Labour MP Jim Sheridan, member of the Commons media select committee, declared that “people are being thought-controlled”, and several news stories declared it “creepy”. The second response, as reported here, was led by academics highlighting clear differences between the ethical requirements they are required to meet when conducting research, and those the Facebook study adopted.

Without informed consent, it’s difficult not to see an attempt at mass emotional manipulation as creepy, so it is highly problematic that the study’s claim for consent is so weak. It states “Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, [constitutes] informed consent for this research”. This is simply nonsense. Even if we pretend every user actually read the Data Use Policy rather than just clicked past it (and how many of us ever read the Terms and Conditions?), this should have happened shortly before the study – rather than potentially as long ago as 2005 when Facebook first launched. Further stretching the definition of “informed” is the fact that the key sentence in the Policy comes at the bottom of a long list of things Facebook “may” use your data for. This solitary sentence – “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement” – embedded in a 9,091 word document, may legally constitute consent, but from an ethical standpoint it certainly isn’t informed.

It is perhaps surprising, having said all this, that I think Facebook should be congratulated on this study. What they have managed to do is draw back the curtain on the increasingly huge impact that tech companies’ algorithms have on our lives. The surprising, and rather worrying thing, is that Facebook has done this inadvertently, whilst reporting on a study of social contagion. The really important ‘contagion’ revealed by this work is that of invisible filters and rankings in structuring our access to information online. The reason why this is worrying is that not seeing this controversy coming suggests Facebook are as blind to the social consequences of these processes as most of the public have been.

Despite the accusations of “creepy” manipulation, the only thing that is unique about what Facebook did in this experiment is that in reporting it they publically admitted that the processing they carried out was not done in the “interests” (as defined by Facebook) of the individuals involved. There are two issues here. The first concerns what is in the interests of the individual. For Facebook, and no doubt other tech companies relying on advertising income base on page views, this is defined as what people like (or ‘Like’ in Facebook’s case). In a healthy, pluralist society we shouldn’t only be exposed to things we like. Being a citizen in a democracy is a job for grown-ups, and important information is not always as immediately palatable as videos of cats on skateboards are. And what of serendipity, of finding interesting content from a novel source? Filters strip this away, in a manner which is entirely purposeful and almost always invisible.

The purpose behind these filters leads us to the second issue. Alongside their interest in keeping users satisfied, tech companies have, of course, their own commercial interests which at times may conflict with those of the user. Google, in a case that has been rumbling on since 2010, is facing sanction from the European Commission (EC) for altering the all-important ranking of websites so its own businesses appear at the top of searches. The ability to present information in a manner which favours the company at the expense of others – whether businesses or individuals – is available to any tech company which provides content to users.

As the tech sector matures, we may increasingly also see political interests shaping their actions. The ongoing ‘net neutrality’ battle in the US has brought to light that one of the biggest potential beneficiaries of abandoning neutrality – the Internet Service Provider Comcast – spent more on lobbying last year ($18m) than any other company except the arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman. In the Facebook controversy some critics have already raised the prospect of such filters being used to alter users’ emotional states during an election, in order to affect the outcome. Even the small effects described in the study could have huge impact given Facebook’s reach, as the study itself acknowledges: “an effect size of d = 0.001 at Facebook’s scale is not negligible: In early 2013, this would have corresponded to hundreds of thousands of emotion expressions in status updates per day.”

There was actually no need, in this case, to use such a poor approximation of informed consent. We shouldn’t though let that complaint obscure the bigger story here. It may have been by accident, but Facebook have, I hope, triggered a vital public debate about the role of algorithms in shaping our online lives.

As societies, we are currently a long way behind the curve in dealing with the possibilities for information manipulation that the internet offers. Of course information manipulation is as old as information itself, but users of a news website know that they are receiving a curated selection of information. We do not yet have such expectations about Google searches or the updates of our friends that Facebook makes available to us. We must then begin to think about how we can ensure such powers are not abused, and not rely just on one-off cases such as Google’s battle with the EC. The challenge of balancing public interest and commercial secrecy promises to result in a long battle, so it’s one that needs to begin now.

In my view, Facebook’s mistake was not in conducting such work, but in reporting it as a study of human behaviour, rather than of tech companies’ influence over us. Ethics are not set in stone, and must always be balanced with what is in the public interest. If there is sufficient benefit for society as a whole, it may be considered justifiable to transgress some individuals’ rights (as is the case, for example, when the news media reports on a politician committing adultery). As such, it could be that argued that Facebook’s study was actually ethical. For this to be the case though, Facebook would need to show an understanding of what the public interest actually is in this case.

The relationship, stupid! Adapting the service relationship for today’s citizens

Authored by Jesse Blum – Research Fellow

There has been recent emphasis on complaint handling in public affairs, but the issue tracking model of open software might be a better paradigm for services delivered in the 21st century digital economy. Whilst similar, the fundamental difference between complaint handling and issue tracking relates to the relationship model between service delivery (be it for government, not-for-profit, or private enterprise) and service user. Whereas the former limits the participation of the user to either consumption or protest, the latter views users as co-creators and coordinates collective service improvement. This generation has come to rely on the Web as a utility and its lessons of creativity and collaboration are being studied in Horizon’s Sayit.Today project, to help integrate crowd wisdom into the significant challenges facing our services.

According to the first episode in Channel 4′s recent program The Complainers, complaints to British corporations have increased by 100% in a year, arising to 38 million being logged in 2013. As Benji Wilson points out though, the show did not seem to investigate this rise, and refused to acknowledge the importance of resolving actual complaints (rather than the generic moans and insults that the show concentrated upon). Wilson suspects that the rise is owing to the Internet and social media (especially Twitter), and I tend to agree. However, whereas Wilson thinks it’s simply because “now that you can mouth off in public and in an instant, you’re much more likely to do so”, I think it is more to do with the ways that these and other digital media ongoingly encourage an increased sense of real time participation in the services affecting our lives, from transport, to health, to general governance.

Dr smaller

Much of this recent emphasis on complaints in the UK has origins with the failure of care at Mid Staffordshire Hospital. Without question, those who suffered at the hospital are entitled to justice and reconciliation, which is what a proper universal complaint system should have as its core value. This is one of the central precepts argued for in the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report “More Complaints Please!“. In addition the report discusses that the complaint systems for government and healthcare services should:  i. have effective and clear process (including good communication with people), ii. be seen as a “positive indicator of user engagement and they should be valued as a source of information about the quality of the service”, and iii. use the reported information to drive improvements, plans and strategies. The problem is that those final two values are significantly overshadowed by the need for justice and reconciliation, especially when the complainants are reporting incidents that have caused real harm to their lives. Furthermore, the report does not distinguish between the levels of issues that people report, from nice to have improvements to failures and critical events.

In addition to the report’s call for the creation of a single point of contact for citizens to make complaints (of the more serious types), we believe there should also be a single point of contact for citizens to raise issues — i.e. to report bugs and put in feature requests in the various services they use, and to engage with service providers in the manner that they have become accustomed from the Internet. At Horizon, under the auspices of the Sayit.Today project, we are working towards developing this universal service issue tracker. To begin with we are concentrating on healthcare delivery within hospitals, as this use case provides the toughest of challenges — life and death situations, ongoing pressure to balance privacy and transparency, and where procedural excellence must be at its highest. We are working closely with our partners in the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust to deliver state of the art issue tracking solutions that make it fast to report issues, that issues get reported in succinct format to those with the power and responsibility to make the requested changes, and that the communication channels between staff, management, and the public are suitably open and transparent.

Complaints to services are on the rise, but so too is the public’s interest and expectation that we can participate in the affairs that govern our lives. Although the goal of a unified and improved complaint system for government and healthcare is to be welcomed, let’s first get the issue tracking in place.

Please contact with enquiries related to this post or the Sayit.Today project.

Open Data Round Up: 24/02/14

Welcome back to my round-up of the most interesting recent stories from the world of open data:

  • The Open Data Institute has announced further expansion of it’s international network, signing up five more organisations to act as “ODI Nodes”. The new Nodes will be located in Osaka, Seoul, Sheffield, Philadelphia and Hawaii and will bring together companies, universities, and NGOs that support open data projects and communities.
  • Pivigo Academy have developed an “Data Science Summer School“, due to start in August 2014, which is the first of it’s kind in the UK. The five week course is aimed training PhD students and researchers in the commercial tools and techniques needed to be hired into data science roles and will be sponsored by KPMG.
  • TechCityUK recently organised Flood Hack, a forum for developers to work on apps and systems which could support members of the public affected by the recent bad weather in the UK and by future extreme weather events. 18 different apps were developed during the event, two of which received development funding from the Nominet Trust to take their apps further – FludBud, which finds users who are near to flood affected areas and tweets them information about potential volunteers near them, and Flood Feeder, which creates a visualization of an aggregated feed of flood & related data.
  • The programme which proposes to allow sharing of NHS patient data in England has been postponed by six months in response to concerns raised by patients and doctors. The postponement will allow NHS England more time to address concerns around privacy as well as to get a greater understanding of the potential risks and benefits. Dr Geraint Lewis, the Chief Data Officer for NHS England, has written a detailed post on the safeguards that will be put in place as part of the programme to protect patient privacy.

Is there anything else you’d like to see covered in these posts? Let me know in the comments or get in touch via Horizon’s social media channels!


Open Data Round Up: 31/01/14

A belated Happy New Year from everyone at Horizon! Here’s a round up of some of the most interesting open data stories from January 2014:

  • Nesta’s recent report “Which Doctors Take Up Promising Ideas: Insights from Open Data” uses open data to analyse early adoption of promising new ideas across primary health care in England. Nesta argue that open data can help people understand differences in service as well as inform patient and practitioner priorities and choices.


  • Huawei have announced that they are to collaborate with Imperial College London on the creation of a Data Science Innovation Laboratory. The Lab will bring together experts from across Imperial’s faculties and Huawei researchers to harness data science research and develop new applications in fields such as smart cities, energy and healthcare.


  • The World Bank has launched a new open data tool which provides comparative data on education around the world. The Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) web tool helps countries collect and analyse information on their education policies, benchmark themselves against other countries, and prioritize areas for reform.


  • Paul Maltby, Director of Open Data and Government Innovation at the Cabinet Office has written a post on the ways in which open data is being used in the UK government for the Civil Service Quarterly blog. The post outlines how open data will help reform public services, as well as improve accountability and generate economic growth.

Finally, Open Data Day 2014 takes place on the 22nd February – a map and more information on the events taking place can be found on the International Open Data Day website.


Open Data Round Up: 19/12/13

Hello and welcome to the final open data round up of 2013!


  • The Ordnance Survey have launched a new Geovation challenge focused on encouraging healthy lifestyles in the UK. The Geovation challenges look at ways in which open data can be used to tackle social problems. OS have also made materials from their latest round of open data masterclasses available online.






Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Horizon!

Open Data Round Up: 28/11/13

The biggest news this week here at Horizon has been the announcement of funding for a new Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training! The new CDT will focus on the theme of “My Life in Data” and will train a community of 80 future leaders to develop the technologies and applications of our ‘digital identities’ in a way that ensures their transparent use across the economy and wider society. The Centre brings together leading figures from computing and engineering as well as the social sciences, business and humanities, and is co-funded by over twenty industry, third sector and international partners.


  • Nominet Trust have published a state-of-the-art review looking at Big Data and Social Organisations. The review says that if social organisations can realise the potential of Big Data then new practices and interventions that offer radically different approaches to addressing some of the most persistent social challenges can be created.


  • The BBC signed Memorandums of Understanding supporting free and open internet technologies with The Open Data Institute, The Open Knowledge Foundation, The Mozilla Foundation and The Europeana Foundation. These agreements will enable closer collaboration between the BBC and each of the four organisations on a range of mutual interests, including the release of structured open data and the use of open standards in web development.



  • Horizon partners Nottingham City Council have launched a new version of Open Data Nottingham which is the portal for all of Nottingham City’s open data. The site contains over 80 data sets, all released under an Open Government Licence, and new content is added regularly but data users are invited to get in touch if a data set they wish to access is unavailable.

That’s all for this week! However if you are interested in the new Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training or in Open Data Nottingham please get in touch via the comments or on Twitter!



Open Data Round Up: 18/11/13

This week’s open data post focuses on how you can get involved with open data – including undertaking data exploration, using applications powered by personal data, and hearing about the impact open data can have on the future of key industries.


  • The Open Data Research Network, in collaboration with the Web Foundation and the Open Data Institute, recently published the Open Data Barometer 2013 Annual Report. The Open Data Barometer takes a multidimensional look at the spread of Open Government Data policy and practice across the world. It has also been visualised by the Open Data Institute.


  • The midata Innovation Lab has launched five new prototype applications which allow people to use their personal data in innovative new ways. The applications which address the issues of energy support for vulnerable people, personal finance management, healthcare and lifestyle changes, caring for vulnerable people, and moving home are available via the midata Innovation Lab website.


  • The Open Data Institute are hosting their inaugural research afternoon entitled  “Show me the future of… Food and Open Data” on the 28th November 2013.  The event will feature several leading researchers discussing the future of food and how open data has the potential to transform the sector



If you’re interested in learning more about how to use open data why not attend one of Ordnance Survey’s free Open Data Masterclasses – limited places are still available for the 2013 Masterclass series.


Open Data Round Up: 07/11/13

Lots of the Horizon team have been at this week’s Digital Economy All Hands event which took place at the incredible MediaCityUK in Salford. The theme was “Open Digital” so it was unsurprising to hear plenty about open data – including a fascinating final keynote speech from Dame Wendy Hall entitled “Lets Be Open About This” which looked at the importance of openness in the development of the world wide web and the potential of open data for the future. Dame Wendy also talked about the “Age of Data” and the importance of linked open data and big data.

Some other interesting developments in the open data arena this week have included:

  • The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in partnership with the Information Economy Council have published their data capability strategy for the UK entitled “Seizing the data opportunity”. Neil Crockett of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult has welcomed the strategy as a “strong and important milestone” for the UK data community


  • The Open Data Institute have published their Annual Review looking back on their first year of operation following The ODI Annual Summit last week . Highlights include the recruitment of 40 members – including Horizon – as well as support for a dozen start-ups and the establishment of a global network. Not bad for a years work!


  •  The Connected Digital Economy Catapult have announced a number of new projects including the Greater Manchester Data Synchronisation Project - a partnership with FutureEverything and the Future Cities Catapult that will develop a programme of work to overcome a number of challenges around the areas of capacity, support and dissemination in the coordinated release of city datasets.


  •  The Open Government Partnership conference took place in London on the 31st October and 1st November. If, like me, you didn’t manage to attend the conference the Cabinet Office have pulled together a handy summary of key news and announcements.


That’s it for this week but don’t forget to follow Horizon on Twitter for more regular updates and news about all aspects of the Digital Economy!


Open Data Round Up: 31/10/13

Happy Hallowe’en! There’s nothing spooky about open data but it has been an action-packed week of open data activity and announcements ahead of  the Open Data Institute Annual Summit and the 2013 Open Government Partnership Conference. Some key announcements are below:

  • The Global Open Data Initiative have this week launched their Declaration on open data. The declaration, entitled “A Citizens’ Call to Action on Open Data” calls for increased action by governments around the world to move towards ‘open data by default’ in order to improve the quantity and quality of open data as well as to increase transparency and accountability
  • The Open Data Institute has announced the launch of a new ODI Global Network. Thirteen initial ‘nodes’ have been announced: Country Nodes in the USA and Canada; City/Region Nodes in Dubai, Chicago, North Carolina, Paris, Trento, Manchester, Brighton, and Leeds; and Communications Nodes in Gothenburg,  Moscow and Buenos Aires
  • The Open Knowledge Foundation has published it’s 2013 Open Data Index ahead of this week’s Open Government Partnership Conference in London. The UK and the USA come out on top of the poll however the OKFN notes there is still more to be done, particularly in regards to publishing company data and allowing re-use of open datasets. The Guardian’s datablog has published an interesting analysis of the survey
  • The Greater London Authority have launched a London Dashboard which provides easy to understand analysis and information about key public services in London. The site is still in beta and feedback is invited but it’s a really interesting model for accessible presentation of open data

This really is only a snapshot of all that is going on at the moment in the field of open data – if you don’t believe me try searching for #opendata on Twitter! If there’s anything you think I’ve missed from this week’s post or that you’d like to see on future post please let me know in the comments.


Open Data Round Up: 23/10/13

There are lots of interesting opportunities coming up in the open data world over the next few weeks and months – from free online courses to exciting events:

  • The European Journalism Centre have announced a free online data journalism course, due to start in early 2014. The five-module introductory course gives participants the essential concepts, techniques and skills to effectively work with data and produce compelling stories under tight deadlines
  • The Global Open Data Initiative have published a draft Declaration on Open Data. Feedback is invited by the 8th November 2013
  • The Open Data Institute and Nesta have announced the finalists for the Crime and Justice Open Data Challenge competition. The three finalists – Stolen Bike UK, Total Car Check and Deaf Justice – have each been awarded £5000 to develop their ideas
  • The Open Data Institute are holding their Annual Summit on Tuesday 29th October, confirmed speakers include Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt

Finally, the Horizon team are currently gearing up to attend DE2013: Open Digital which is taking place at MediaCity in Salford on the 4th – 6th November – if you’re planning on attending do stop by our stand and say hello!

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