Why be ethical? Who decides?

The role of ethics is an extremely important, ‘unwritten rule’, that every single individual, group, organisation and business abides by. There is no single, clear-cut set of rules or a list of ethics; ethics is subjective and is embedded in culture, beliefs and in individual moral compasses. Standards vary according to discipline, political system, legal system, religious and social systems, research content, setting/institution, and time in history. When it comes to media research it is extremely important to be completely ethical, as this research, if not ethical, may affect participants in a number of ways, and thus reflect badly on you and your professionalism.


“Ethics are widely agreed moral principles about what is wright and wrong” – (Tinker, Penny, 2013)

Ethics is extremely crucial when ones research involves human participants. According to tinker, Penny 2013, participants in any type of research where legal rights and ownership are concerned, they must provide informed consent.

This all seems pretty straightforward and obvious to me, and would to many others with any sort of moral/ethical compass, however I wanted to explore some examples where particular media research was breached of any ethical consideration.

An unethical example of a research paper that was undertaken, which I will be using as a case study in this blog titled ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’. This experiment undertaken by Cornell and the University of san Francisco (affiliates of Facebook) and was deemed unethical by the use of manipulation of users’ emotions. The research consisted of exposing random users to only negative posts, by which they evaluated whether or not this made a difference by what they then posted on Facebook. Hundreds of thousands of users of Facebook were not only used in this social experiment by which they were not informed about, but they were also made to feel sad and/or other manipulation of emotions. According to Weerakody (2008) , under the category of ‘honesty and integrity’, this research experiment is deemed completely unethical as it caused ‘harm, embarrassment and pain.’

For any type of human experimentation it is of a legal right to ask for consent. Facebook, and Cornell however argued that by clicking ‘I agree’ when signing up to a Facebook account, that they had been informed that their content could be used for research. This in itself it unethical, and nowhere has been made clear that users may be purposely physiologically affected. So thus, while this research may be legal, it is definitely not ethical in my eyes, and in the eyes of many others.


Facebook also argued, that due to it having no government funding, a private company per say, the research did not have to obey by the ‘common rule’, thus the information gathered was used for ‘discussion purposes only’, and used to evaluate ones experience with Facebook.

Ethics is very individualized according to Weerakoday. Different people will have different meanings and expectations as to what is right and what is wrong, thus it is not often that legal action can be taken over the debate of ethics. In relation to this case study, Facebook had a clear and respected argument as to why they viewed it as right. Nevertheless, this research was frowned upon by many critics, and thus reputation of the scholars involved was degraded.

Legal? Yes. But ethical? Who decides?


One thought on “Why be ethical? Who decides?

  1. Hi Emily,

    I really enjoyed this post! Using Facebook as a case study is a great idea because it is relevant to a lot of people. Most of us use social media, Facebook in particular, so it’s always great to read more about it. I believe that we should be informed about what is actually private on Facebook and what they do with our information once they have it.
    I agree with you when you state that, although what Facebook and Cornell have done is legal, it is definitely not ethical. The fact that they were manipulating peoples’ emotions without informing them is a huge breach of ethics.
    You could also mention that the terms regarding research in their terms and conditions were actually added in four months after the conclusion of the experiment. There is more information on this here: http://theconversation.com/facebook-puts-ethics-of-research-by-private-companies-in-spotlight-28798
    I really enjoyed reading your post and found it very informative!

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