Not Today, Facebook. Not Today.

Facebook dear, that is NOT how you conduct an experiment.

Oh Facebook.

Turns out Facebook sneaked up on you during 2012 and decided to toss between turning your newsfeed into gloom and doom or a field of frolicking puppies. Well that description is far better than what the social networking site shoved on its users.

The experiment that happened, wanted to see if a particular emotion could be spread outside the realms of strictly in-person interactions. They exposed two groups of users (a staggering 689,003 sample number to be exact) to either reduced positive emotional content or reduced negative emotional content. This can be translated to imply that if you were a subject you were seeing less of either posts containing positive words or negative words as determined by the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Software. [It isn’t clear to me if they selected solely based on the words used or included posts that lacked words but had media falling in either categories.]

I won’t discuss the results of the study but you can read the original paper here. I would like to talk about how grossly unethical this study was. The paper says and I quote

…It 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.

which is a heaping pile of lies. When a user signs up for a Facebook account they do not give you the permission to use them for stealth academic studies. Sure we know we will be exposed to certain ads tailored for us but the important thing is we KNOW it’s an ad, as The Laboratorium points out (go read it, it’s an excellent breakdown of the situation). What we don’t expect is to be offered up as experimental subjects without our knowledge.

For those of you not familiar with how studies like this are conducted, there is such a thing in research called ‘informed consent’. It boils down to a researcher explaining to you what the study includes, how it is going to be conducted along with any possible risks participating in the study may result in. They also explicitly tell you that you are free to remove yourself from the experiment at any given point because participation is voluntary. As in you volunteer yourself as tribute as opposed to being picked off a gathering and forced to take part in a study and then not even told that you were used. The latter is precisely the case here.

I have been a volunteer in quite a few psychology studies myself over the course of my psychology units and even afterwards. Every single time the participation was voluntary. A researcher would approach me and give a brief talk on the study and ask if I would be interested in joining. If Facebook was interested in this study all they had to do was send a simple message regarding the experimental methods, ask for informed consent and then give users the freedom to either opt out or take part in the study. But they didn’t.

Forget asking you out, Facebook wants to kidnap and pour slime on you and then ‘observe’ if you decide to go for a second date. To which I say, “Not today”.



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