The ignominy of mere Ethics Dunce status is too good for OKCupid CEO Christian Rudder and his online dating service, and Unethical Website of the Month doesn’t do it justice either. The online dating website has revealed itself as an ethics outlaw, and a smug one. It is lying to its customers, toying with the lives of vulnerable people who trust it, and doesn’t see anything wrong with its conduct.
That qualifies OKCupid as a Corporate Fick, the first ever so-identified here. As stated in the blog glossary of terms and concepts, a fick is someone who openly and blatantly violates social norms of responsibility, honesty or fairness without shame or remorse. That description fits OKCupid to a fare-thee-well.
In case you missed the story, the website revealed—proudly, in fact—that it intentionally set up users with bad dates, or mismatched by its own compatibility formulas, to see how people would behave. The uproar over Facebook’s undisclosed manipulation of users’ moods prompted the disclosure.Facebook’s experiment violated research ethics standards, and the company was misrepresenting both law and ethics when it claimed that they had Facebook user’s consent to use them as cyber lab rats. That was bad. This is infinitely worse. Continue reading
Facebook is so out.
“Meh. Look at this neat picture of my dog!”
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. Continue reading
Facebook apparently has been manipulating the feeds that some users get to see in order to measure how it the content affects the tone of their own posts.
You can read about the research here; I’m not publicizing it, because the Facebook’s research is an abuse of users and their trust. I don’t mind them reading my posts, for they own the service, and the service is in their name. I assume they will use my data and content to make money, but I didn’t agree to allow them to manipulate me, or what I write, feel, or think. I’m also not especially optimistic about the uses the results of such research might be applied to.
The researchers claim that the research is ethical because a computer program scanned for words that were considered either “positive” or “negative,” but the Facebook content wasn’t actually read. Facebook terms of service state that user data may be used “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”
Since Facebook users agree to the terms of service, the researchers argue that this constitutes “informed consent” for their experiment.
Harris Meyer is an Ethics Hero because he won’t let a bad lesson go unchallenged.
Meyer is an award-winning freelance journalist and a former editor at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald Republic. That was the paper that first broke the story of Gaby Rodriguez last year, which I wrote about here. With the encouragement of her high school principal, Rodriguez, a senior, embarked on some amateur social science research that involved deceiving everyone in her life except her mother, one (of seven) siblings, her boyfriend, and the principal. She pretended that she was pregnant, suing padding. She faked the pregnancy for months, finally announcing the sham in a student assembly. This extended hoax was supposedly designed to expose how pregnant teenagers are treated by their peers and others. It was, by any rational standard, a despicable thing to do—a betrayal and exploitation of her friends, her boyfriend’s family, her siblings and teachers. Deception on such a scale must be justified, if at all, by both need and necessity. Were there other, less destructive ways to investigate the treatment of pregnant teens? Sure there were; interviews come to mind. Collecting published journals and other accounts. But Gaby’s unethical stunt was in spiritual synchronicity with a reality show-obsessed culture, where fake is entertaining and collateral damage is of no concern. I wrote: Continue reading
Commenter Karl Penny expands on the original post with reflections on trust:
“…Ms. Rodriguez’s actions were just plain wrong. Society, a civilized one anyway, depends on trust if it is to function. I buy foods that I trust were processed in such a manner that they are still wholesome, for example. Not so long ago, my wife and I went to see a movie and, while still some distance from the ticket booths, noticed that a number of people had turned and started walking away from the line they’d been in. We asked a couple who’d headed off in our direction what the matter was. They said a particular movie (forgot which one, now), the one we had planned to see, was sold out. We thanked them and left. We believed them. We didn’t wonder if it was a stunt or practical joke of some kind. We didn’t think a competing theater chain was trying to undermine a competitor’s business in that way. We certainly didn’t wonder if some local students were conducting a study on the behavior of disappointed theater patrons. I don’t want to have to live in a society where it would have been necessary to check whether the theater was really out of tickets for that show. We have enough people already who have worked at undermining public trust, to the detriment of us all. Any more of them, we don’t need.”
"How exciting! It's fake, isn't it?"
Gaby Rodriguez, a Yakima (Washington) High School senior, faked a pregnancy for six months as a school-approved senior project. She told no one about the charade, which the school has called a “social experiment,” except her mother, boyfriend and principal. Others, like her siblings, her boyfriend’s family, fellow students, friends and teachers, were led to believe the pregnancy was real.
Thanks to hidden camera shows like ABC’s “What Would You Do?” and various reality shows, too many people have the impression that everyone they meet is a potential guinea pig. On the contrary: using decent, disguise, deception and lies to “see how people react” is no better than lying for any other reason, and often more harmful. Continue reading
Mike Wise, a Washington Post sportswriter and columnist deliberately posted a phony scoop (about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) on Twitter, as an experiment to see how widely it would be picked up. His plan, he now says, was to correct the lie with a follow-up tweet. Due to bad luck or the intervention of the God of Journalism, however, his Twitter account froze, and what was supposed to be a near immediate correction took almost forty minutes. Several internet sites, from the Miami Herald to NBC’s ProFootballTalk, passed on the original tweet, attributing it to Wise.
Faced with a staff reporter who intentionally published a lie for no other reason than to see what would happen, the Post reacted according to its concern regarding the seriousness of his conduct—that is, deceiving those who trust him, as a member of a legitimate media organization, to report only the truth and to respect the trust of his and his paper’s readers—and suspended him for one month. Continue reading