Facebook Ethics

There’s been a lot of gasping about Facebook deliberately making a random half of a random sample of users’ posts a less positive than they would have been for one week.  This was part of a study to understand how emotions are affected, and the results of the study are, apparently, important.  The fuss is that the people involved – many thousands – were not asked if they wanted to take part.

There have been some funny things said about this.  Not least, from the Guardian:

But the study has come in for severe criticism because unlike the advertising that Facebook shows – which arguably aims to alter peoples’ behaviour by making them buy products or services from those advertisers – the changes to the news feeds were made without users’ knowledge or explicit consent

My view, and the view of many in advertising and psychology, is that persuasion does indeed change behaviour without people’s explicit knowledge (whatever that means exactly) and certainly no-one consents to having advertising in their Facebook feed any more than they would to take part in this experiment.

For me, as an epidemiologist who helps with cluster randomized trials, I am surprised that we’re still talking about consent in such a simplistic way.  In many cluster randomized trials it is not deemed necessary by ethics boards for every member of every cluster to be asked for their consent to be randomized (although it probably will be for any data collected, at least at the individual level).  In other contexts, especially in psychology, it is unfeasible to explain the study to the participants since they cannot be blinded to the random change.  In both cases, important research is only made possible with a nuanced view of consent.

From the PNAS paper, it doesn’t appear that Facebook received approval from an ethics board, and balancing the issues touched on above is what ethics boards do.  They may continue to try to claim that agreeing to the data use policy when we sign up constitutes consent (it doesn’t).   These are the criticisms that should be levied here – that they were in violation of procedure – not some naive and knee-jerk reaction to issues of consent in the context of tailored ads and diminishing privacy.


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