This story on a 2012 Facebook study hit the news cycle last week because of a scholarly paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper, titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” detailed how researchers used 689,003 users on Facebook to test how different posts made them feel.
The problem is, people consider their emotional health part of their actual health (which seems reasonable -Ed.) and the researchers didn’t ask permission from the users in their study (presumably because 1. it’s hard, and 2. it would influence the test). The linked article on TechCrunch does a good job of showing the two sides in the dispute. We summarize them here.
Outrage and indignation:
- Facebook did not get express opt-in permission nor did it provide a way to opt out (because it didn’t tell the users it was conducting an experiment, and the line in the Data Use Policy that allows it was added after the study).
- The experiment specifically tried to depress (some) people
- There was no oversight by an independent ethics board (or, for clinical trials folks, an institutional review board)
- One of the authors has studied authoritarian regimes and revolutions for the US government
- Hiding negative posts is self-serving for Facebook
- European regulators are looking into whether the experiment contravenes agreements the company made after previous privacy issues
- There is a general fear about the amount of data being collected by large companies
Minimization and acceptance:
- Tests like this are similar to A/B tests that nearly all large websites conduct on their users including Amazon and Yahoo
- Regulation of services like this can become too onerous (and people detest the NSA)
- The overblown backlash will only keep researchers from publishing their results, it won’t keep them from conducting the research
Other publications on this story:
- Facebook Experiments Had Few Limits – Wall Street Journal
- The Facebook Prison Experiment – Wall Street Journal
- Facebook’s Experiment Reveals A Much Deeper Problem With The Internet Today – Forbes
- Facebook’s clinical trial – MM&M