Ithaca, N.Y. — A writer at a leading British newspaper has ripped into Cornell for its role in a controversial Facebook experiment that manipulated users’ newsfeeds to gauge their emotional reactions.

In an article headlined, “Facebook fiasco: was Cornell’s study of ’emotional contagion’ an ethics breach?,” The Guardian’s Chris Chambers writes:

“It’s become farcical. Whoever we ask, nobody seems to know anything. Did the study have ethical approval? First the answer was yes. Then it was no. Then it was maybe. Then it was no again. Was it funded by the US army? First the university said yes. Then it said no, without explanation. Why did the scientific journal not state whether the study was ethically approved, as required by its own policy? Sorry, editor Susan Fiske told me, I’m too busy to answer that question.


I also contacted the Cornell University IRB and the authors of the paper. On Monday evening, the university responded with the brief statement that because the academic researchers devolved responsibility for data collection and analysis to Facebook, they were “not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required”. This is in spite of the fact that the Cornell academics helped design the project. Meanwhile, the academics themselves have said nothing, relying on Facebook researcher Adam Kramer to issue vague comments that provide few answers. It seems they have descended into lockdown.

As Chambers points out, it’s still unclear what role, exactly, Cornell professor Jeffrey Hancock and then-university affiliated researcher Jamie Guillory played in conducting the study.

A short statement released by Cornell Monday stressed that neither academic had direct access to the collection of private data.

But that clarification did not answer other, perhaps equally relevant questions: Who approached who with the idea of the study? Who bore responsibility for vetting its ethics? Who planned its execution?

On Tuesday, The Ithaca Voice called Cornell spokesperson John Carberry to learn the extent to which Cornell’s researchers came up with and orchestrated the Facebook experiment. (A call to Hancock’s office was not returned.)

“Facebook did the study entirely” Carberry said.

That answer, however, may not square with the Guardian’s report, which showed the Cornell staffers as responsible for having “designed research.” Additionally, an earlier Cornell statement that said the study was “by social scientists at Cornell, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Facebook.”

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Carberry said he would look into the matter and let us know when he learns more. We’ll be sure to update this story when he does so.

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.

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