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Users uninformed lab rats in new study

July 14, 2014 at 2:14 a.m.


The following editorial ran in the Los Angeles Times on June 30:

Facebook is an extraordinary tool, but its pitfalls have become increasingly apparent. Users' personal information, interests and habits are all fair game for the company, which has little compunction about analyzing the data and selling it to advertisers. Now, Facebook has gone beyond capitalism and into creepy. For a week in 2012, it seems, the company manipulated users' news feeds as part of a psychology experiment to see whether happier or sadder content led users to write happier or sadder posts. The result? Facebook appears to have altered people's emotional states without their awareness.

This was wrong on multiple levels. It was unethical for Facebook to conduct a psychological experiment without users' informed consent. And it was especially wrong to do so in a way that played with the emotions of its users. That's dangerous territory.

Facebook, which employs a secret algorithm to determine what users see on their news feeds, conducted its research by altering the feeds of some 700,000 users, increasing or decreasing the number of "positive" and "negative" messages they saw to study the "emotional contagion" of social networking. The company, together with two academic researchers, published the results this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, Facebook asserted that users had given informed consent, which is standard protocol in psychological research, when they agreed to the company's terms of service, which caution that users' data can be mined for analysis and research. But that's disingenuous. It's hard to believe that users who took the time to read Facebook's 13,000-word service agreements would have understood they were signing on to be lab rats.

In response to the outrage, the Facebook researcher who designed the study apologized for "any anxiety it caused." He added that the company will seek to improve its internal review practices for future research. Certainly, Facebook needs to revisit its policies to ensure that its users are not unwilling participants in psychological research. If this research is so valuable, the company should seek true informed consent.

But Facebook also needs to address its cavalier attitude toward its users. The company has come under fire repeatedly for pushing the boundaries of privacy expectations only to be surprised by ferocious blowback. This latest controversy sends a troubling message to users that their personal information, their online activities and now even their feelings are all data points to be analyzed and manipulated according to the whims of a giant corporate machine.

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