TMO Daily Observations: 2014-06-30

| Daily Observations Podcast

Facebook conducted an experiment where it manipulated what some subscribers saw in their timelines to see what would happen to their emotional state, but they didn't bother to tell anyone what they were up to. Dave Hamilton and Bryan Chaffin join Jeff Gamet to share their thoughts on what Facebook did, and to talk about Apple's involvement in this last weekend's Gay Pride parade in San Francisco.

TMO Daily Observations: 2014-06-30

Jun. 30, 2014 — Download: MP3 Version (AAC Version Coming Soon)

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Jeff et al:

Just listened to your daily TMO podcast.

Before I begin, let me state that I am responding to what you have said, and have not independently verified the facts for myself.

That said, in response to the issue of FB conducting an experiment on its readers to see how they responded to the tone of their news feed, while I concur that this is useful information, it should be stated that this type of information, and the finding that people receiving negative feed tended to respond with more negative indicators and those receiving positive feed responded positively, is not new and is based on years of behavioural research conducted in controlled trials by licensed professionals and published in the peer-reviewed literature. And therein lies the problem.

The issue is one of ethics. Our current standard of ethics for conducting any experiment, however defined and irrespective of the degree of invasiveness, on people is based on the findings of the Nuremberg trials, and revolve around the question of informed consent.

In brief, for any experiment to be considered ethical, study participants must be told that an experiment is being conducted, what its purpose is, what the potential risks and benefits are, be asked if they are willing to participate, be informed that they may withdraw at any time and without any retaliatory penalty for doing so, how the information they provide will be used and what will be done with it once the study is terminated, and what will be done for them if they suffer any harm. Most importantly, however is the issue of their voluntary participation and ability to withdraw at anytime - in a word - that they have total control over their participation.

Not only do professionals who conduct these trials have to adhere to these standards if they want retain their licenses, let alone publish their findings, there are independent committees retained by every academic or other institution that conducts such trials that must review and approve of the study before it can be initiated.

Behavioural studies are no different, and indeed, few types of studies might be considered more intrinsically invasive, as someone’s psyche and sense of well-being may be affected. Qualified professional researchers have been conducting these types of experiments for decades following these ethical guidelines without compromising the quality of their findings, as attested by peer-reviewed publications and the policies that arise therefrom.

If what you say of FB’s conduct of this study is true and accurate, then the experiment they did was unethical. People were not informed, and most importantly, had no control over their participation. Moreover, from your description (and one would need to know more about how the experiment was conducted), the people conducting the study had little to no way of knowing the effect that their experiment might have had on the participants (they were hardly volunteers) and even less capability of intervening in the event of harm, such as psychological duress and any resultant maladaptive behaviour.

Simply having the means, ability and will to conduct a study does not grant the right to do so; or else any authority figure could argue, ‘This is my clinic, my hospital, my company, my employees, my soldiers, my prisoners and I can conduct any experiment I so please’. Tragic history followed by reasoned and collective conscience, and the recognition of the need to protect all people but particularly the vulnerable, argues otherwise.

In my view, not only have FB crossed the line of propriety and exceeded their authority over their clients in this matter, they have provided a compelling case for tighter oversight of how such companies treat and protect their customers, and should be held accountable for this ethical breach of conduct. After all, people with far greater skill and ability to do this sort of thing without harming participants are already held accountable.

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