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Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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3 comments

By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?

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