The Ethics Of Facebook’s Emotion-Manipulation Research

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I’ve railed against Facebook many times on this blog, and in 2010’s “Facebook: Beyond The Last Straw“), I promised I would stop. I managed to keep that promise for nearly four years, but I’ve been roused to rail once again by the confluence of four different interests I happen to have: emotion research (one of my philosophical activities), ethics (a subject I teach), federal regulations covering university research (which I help to administer by being on my university’s Institutional Research Board) and the internet (which, of course, I constantly use).

In case you haven’t yet heard, what Facebook did was to manipulate the “news feeds” users received from their friends, eliminating items with words associated with either positive emotions or negative emotions, and then observing the degree to which the manipulated users subsequently employed such positive or negative vocabulary in their own posts. Facebook’s main goal was to disconfirm a hypothesis suggested by previous researchers that users would be placed in a negative mood by their friends’ positive news items, or in a positive mood by their friends’ negative news items. As I understand it, the results did disconfirm that hypothesis, and confirmed the opposite one (namely, that users would be placed in congruent rather than incongruent mood states by reading their friends’ positive or negative news items), but just barely.

Although I find this methodology questionable on a number of grounds, apparently peer-reviewers did not. The research was published in a reputable journal. More interesting to me are the ethical implications of Facebook’s having used their users as guinea pigs this way.

The best article I’ve found on the net about the ethical issues raised by this experiment was written as an opinion piece on Wired by Michelle N. Meyer, Director of Bioethics Policy in the Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Bioethics Program. Meyer is writing specifically about the question of whether the research, which involved faculty from several universities whose human-subject research is federally regulated, could have (and should have) been approved under the relevant regulations. Ultimately, she argues that it both could have and should have, assuming that the manipulation posed minimal risk (relative to other manipulations users regularly undergo on Facebook and other sites). Her only caveat is that more specific consent should have been obtained from the subjects (without giving away the manipulation involved), and some debriefing should have occurred afterward. If you’re interested in her reasoning, which at first glance I find basically sound, I encourage you to read the whole article. Meyer’s bottom line is this-

We can certainly have a conversation about the appropriateness of Facebook-like manipulations, data mining, and other 21st-century practices. But so long as we allow private entities to engage freely in these practices, we ought not unduly restrain academics trying to determine their effects. Recall those fear appeals I mentioned above. As one social psychology doctoral candidate noted on Twitter, IRBs make it impossible to study the effects of appeals that carry the same intensity of fear as real-world appeals to which people are exposed routinely, and on a mass scale, with unknown consequences. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. What corporations can do at will to serve their bottom line, and non-profits can do to serve their cause, we shouldn’t make (even) harder—or impossible—for those seeking to produce generalizable knowledge to do.

My only gripe with this is that it doesn’t push strongly enough for the sort of “conversation” mentioned in the first line. The ways in which social media sites – and other internet sites – can legally manipulate their users without their specific consent is, as far as I can tell, entirely unregulated. Yes, the net should be open and free, but manipulation of the sort Facebook engaged in undermines rather than enhances user freedom. We shouldn’t expect to be able to avoid every attempt to influence our emotions, but there is an important difference between (for instance) being exposed to an ad as a price of admission, and having the information one’s friends intended you to see being edited, unbeknownst to you or your friends, for some third party’s ulterior purpose.

The Growing Social-Media-Corporate Complex

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When I visited Huffington Post today and saw this photo, I just wanted to leave a quick comment that hadn’t yet been left, namely to identify the beautiful setting as Kailua Beach on Oahu, one of my favorite beaches in the whole wide world. However, I then discovered that the Huffington Post no longer allows you to create an account just on it; instead, you have to log on via a social networking site. As my previous rants against Facebook make clear, I HATE SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES, not because they are social, and not because they involve networking, but because they invariably involve MARKETING. I don’t know about you (and don’t you appreciate that?), but I’d much rather have the NSA collect data on my every click around the web than have it done by some consortium of corporations whose only interest is to sell me products that I don’t want or need, and/or to sell information about me to other entities who might do whatever they like with it.

I searched to find other bloggers who might share my distaste for the growing social media complex, but (perhaps due to my impatience after spending several minutes trying to figure out a way around the HufPo requirement) all I found were pro-marketing sites whose authors view the growth as an opportunity rather than an annoyance or worse. In any case, if you haven’t considered the sheer size and interconnectedness of the social media marketing web, check out a larger, more readable version of Brian Solis and JESS3’s annual chart, which in miniature looks like this-

JESS3_BrianSolis_ConversationPrism4_Modified

UPDATE: Amusingly, as if to make my point, after tweeting a link to this post (Twitter is the one social networking site I’m on), I immediately received this marketing response on Twitter-

Making My Point

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet…

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…that IS the question, these days. And although I’m not one to partake of the latest internet fad (just search this blog for my posts on Facebook), I’ve taken to announcing my Blog Here Now posts on Twitter. May the Gods of unabbreviated writing have mercy on my semi-literate soul…

Follow me @herzberglarry.

Facebook: Beyond The Last Straw

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I recently ended my (little used) Facebook account for reasons discussed here. Given the recent news about privacy breaches in Facebook, I’m glad I did. Here’s part of what the Wall Street Journal has to say about it-

Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

The issue affects tens of millions of Facebook app users, including people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings. The practice breaks Facebook’s rules, and renews questions about its ability to keep identifiable information about its users’ activities secure.

Facebook says it is taking steps to “dramatically limit” the exposure of users’ personal information, after a WSJ investigation showed that personal IDs were being transmitted to third parties via Facebook apps.

It’s hard to have much faith in Facebook’s sincerity when its business model has always depended on making information about its users available to advertisers.

If you’re thinking I’m in danger of becoming a bit obsessed with Facebook, don’t worry: this will be my last post on the subject. Promise.

Is This Why Facebook Is So Creepy?

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I’ve posted several times on what I’ve described as Facebook’s creepiness (see, for instance, here, here, and here). Now that I’ve seen The Social Network, which dramatizes the story of Facebook’s creepy genesis, complete with a creepy portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg and the creepy internet economy (which seems to be built on a creepily extreme sort of narcissism, much like that of Wall Street’s Masters of The Universe that Tom Wolfe exposed in Bonfire of The Vanities), it seems to me that I may have found an explanation of its creepiness. Like most of the critics, I recommend it, although it left me feeling, well… creeped out.

Here’s the trailer-

Facebook: the last straw

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Okay, this is the last straw. I just received the following “Free iPad” scam from my wife’s Facebook address-

As soon as you click on the topmost link, you get re-directed to a page at “r.better-gifts.net”. After giving them your email address, you’re invited to fill out the following form (to get your free iPad)-

Notice the list of marketing partners from whom I can now expect to receive a call on my cell phone (that is, a call I would pay for). Who knows what further circles of hell one might enter by continuing on…

Even worse, if you click on the bottom link for more information, after logging into Facebook you get sent to this page, which is supposedly created by my wife Cheryl (she had nothing to do with it)-

Now, the problem isn’t that I would ever fall for a scam like this. I wouldn’t. Nor would Cheryl, who had nothing to do with any of this (other than being a Facebook member). But the fact that Facebook’s infrastructure allows me – and all of my wife’s other Facebook friends – to receive an email and other notifications from her account promoting this scam is the last straw. I’m out of Facebook. For good.

Facebook Is The Devil

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Finally, others seem to be catching on that selling – actually, donating – your soul to an intrusive entity like Facebook is downright creepy. I do keep a profile there, but I use it more for anthropological excursions into the dark heart of the corporate internet than for anything else. Here’s a quote from the New York Times article today-

Leif Harmsen, once a Facebook user, now crusades against it. Having dismissed his mother’s snap judgment of the site (“Facebook is the devil”), Harmsen now passionately agrees. He says, not entirely in jest, that he considers it a repressive regime akin to North Korea, and sells T-shirts with the words “Shut Your Facebook.” What especially galls him is the commercialization and corporate regulation of personal and social life. As Facebook endeavors to be the Web’s headquarters — to compete with Google, in other words, and to make money from the information it gathers — it’s inevitable that some people would come to view it as Big Brother.

“The more dependent we allow ourselves to become to something like Facebook — and Facebook does everything in its power to make you more dependent — the more Facebook can and does abuse us,” Harmsen explained by indignant e-mail. “It is not ‘your’ Facebook profile. It is Facebook’s profile about you.”

Hear hear!