TORONTO – Facebook is facing fierce criticism after it was revealed the social network conducted a psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 users without their knowledge.
The study, done in collaboration with two U.S. universities, involved manipulating user’s newsfeeds to evaluate how negative and positive posts affected user’s emotions. Some users feeds were tweaked to show more positive posts, while others would see their news feed filled with Debbie Downers.
Researchers found that the more positive posts users were exposed to, the happier their status updates were – and vice versa.
But Facebook users are crying foul over the experiment, saying they were unknowingly used as guinea pigs by the social networking giant.
Let's call the Facebook experiment what it is: a symptom of a much wider failure to think about ethics, power and consent on platforms.—
Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) June 28, 2014
I wonder if Facebook KILLED anyone with their emotion manipulation stunt. At their scale and with depressed people out there, it's possible.—
Lauren Weinstein (@laurenweinstein) June 29, 2014
It's not the fact that facebook or scientists study behavior that is problematic (it's actually important). The way the did it was wrong.—
Jürgen Geuter (@tante) June 30, 2014
I wish I hadn’t quit Facebook so I could quit them all over again.—
John Birmingham (@JohnBirmingham) June 28, 2014
Though the study was released over two weeks ago, growing outrage amongst users led the study’s lead author to publish an apology Sunday.
“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out,” said Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer in a public Facebook post Sunday.
“At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn’t clearly state our motivations in the paper.”
Kramer, who designed the experiment, added that Facebook has been working to improve upon its internal review practices since conducting the experiment in 2012. He added that those review practices will take into consideration the negative reaction to the research.
“My co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety,” Kramer wrote.
According to Facebook, the experiment 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.”
But some experts have debated this.
“The standard of consent for terms of service is low. But that “consent” is a legal fiction, designed to facilitate online interactions. It’s very different from informed consent, the ethical and legal standard for human subjects research,” said James Grimmelmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland, in a blog post.
Grimmelmann added that because the study’s co-authors were from the University of California at San Francisco and Cornell – both of which are major research universities – the study should have been reviewed by an institutional review board (IRB) to ensure Facebook was complying with legal and ethical guidelines.
Susan Fiske, editor of the study, told The Globe and Mail the study was reviewed and approved at Cornell University by an ethical review board.
Facebook, Google, Yahoo and many other Internet companies are guilty of manipulating users feeds in order to analyze consumer data and show users more of what they like. However, many feel Facebook crossed the line by using this tactic for psychological testing.
“The real scandal, then, is what’s considered “ethical.” The argument that Facebook already advertises, personalizes, and manipulates is at heart a claim that our moral expectations for Facebook are already so debased that they can sink no lower,” Grimmelmann wrote.
“I beg to differ. This study is a scandal because it brought Facebook’s troubling practices into a realm—academia—where we still have standards of treating people with dignity and serving the common good.”
© Shaw Media, 2014