Facebook is so out.
Ethics Strike One was the research itself, using its own, trusting users as guinea pigs in a mad scientist experiment to determine whether their moods could be manipulated by secretly managing the kind of posts they read from Facebook friends.
Ethics Strike Two was the lack of its subjects informed consent for the study, violating the basic standards of human subject research. A boilerplate user agreement that makes a vague reference to using data for “research” in no way meets the requirements of informed consent for this kind of study.
This brings us to Ethics Strike Three. In justifying the legality and ethics of the research, Facebook’s researchers explained that leave to perform such experiments was consistent with the user agreement (See Strike Two): “[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.” As I pointed out above and in my previous post on this topic, this isn’t informed consent as the research field and various ethics codes define it. But even if it was, this statement is a lie.
In 2011 when the experiment was conducted, which is what matters in determining legal and ethical consent, the company’s user policy didn’t reference “research.” The reference in the user agreement to using information “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement” wasn’t included until May 2012, which the company itself highlighted in a comparison against the prior September 2011 version. Even if the language in the fine print user agreement was sufficient to establish informed consent by a Facebook user to have his head messed around with for the amusement of Facebook researchers—which it was not—it didn’t exist in time for the unwitting subjects to “agree” to it. Facebook added it after the fact, then lied in a public statement by claiming otherwise.
Strike Four? Facebook didn’t have an age filter in its research protocols, meaning minors may have been included as guinea pigs—another blatant research ethics violation. Three strikes, however, is all that is necessary
At least, that’s what I would have thought. However, public interest (or understanding?) regarding this serious breach of trust by Facebook has been minimal. Even here on Ethics Alarms, where I would assume the readership represents the upper level of ethics understanding and sensitivity, the original post about Facebook’s abuse of its users attracted the interest of few readers and only a few commenters. Similarly in the news media: mention of the experiment and its ethical implications was minimal and fleeting.
Facebook entices citizens to use its platform to reveal every aspect of the inner and outer lives, and now we know that in doing so, we are regarded as inviting scientists to secretly control what we see in order to control what we feel and think. Is that really acceptable to Facebook users, who are a fair representation of the U.S. population? Does this mean that they are, in fact, willing to be manipulated by unknown strangers as long as they can post selfies and dumb quizzes for their pseudo-friends? Does this mean that current day Americans are so submissive that they will surrender basic rights and human dignity in exchange for free services, no matter how superfluous or trivial? Or does it mean that most Facebook users are too ignorant or dim to understand what is going on?
The lack of interest and indignation by the Facebook’s victims is more alarming than the unethical research itself.