Beki Grinter

That Facebook Study

In academia, computer science, discipline, empirical, European Union, research, social media on July 8, 2014 at 8:07 am

Following Michael Bernstein’s suggestion that Social Computing researchers join the conversation.

Facebook and colleagues at Cornell and the University of California, San Francisco published a study in which it was revealed that ~600,000 people had their Newsfeed curated to see either positive or negative posts. The goal was to see how seeing happy or sad posts influenced the users. Unless you’ve been without Internet connectivity you likely have heard about the uproar its generated.

Much has been said, Michael links to a list and some more essays that he’s found. Some people have expressed concerns about the role that corporations play in shaping our views of the world (via their online curation of it). Of course they do that everyday, but this study focused attention on that curation process by telling us, at least for a week how it was done for the subjects of the study. Others have expressed concern about the ethics of this study.

What do I think?

I’ve been dwelling on the ethical concerns. It helps that I’m teaching a course on Ethics and Computing. And that I’m doing it in Oxford, England. So I’m going to start from here.

First, this study has caused me to reflect on the peculiar situation that exists in the United States with regards to ethical review of science, and the lack of protection for individuals that participate in it.

In the United States, only institutions that take Federal Government research dollars are required to have Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). The purpose of an IRB is to review any study involving human subjects to ensure that it meets certain ethical standards. The IRB process has its origin in the appalling abuses conducted in the name of science like the Tuskegee Experiment. Facebook does not take Federal research money, and is therefore not required to have an IRB. The institutions by which research gets published are also not required to perform ethical reviews of work that they receive.

I find myself asking whether individuals who participate in a research study, irrespective of who funds that work, have the right to be protected? Currently there’s an inconsistency, in some research the answer is yes, and in others it is no. It seems very peculiar to me that who funds the work determines whether the research is subject to ethical review and whether the people who participate have protection.

Second, most of the responses I’ve read have been framed in American terms. But social computing, including this study, aspires to be a global science. What I mean is that nowhere did I read that these results only apply to a particular group of people from a particular place. And with the implication of being global comes a deeper and broader responsibility: to respect the values of the citizens that it touches in its research.

The focus on the IRB is uniquely American. Meanwhile I am in Europe. I’ve been learning more about European privacy laws, and my understanding is that they provide a broader protection for individuals (for example, not distinguishing based on who pays for the research), and also place a greater burden on those who collect data about people to inform them, and to explicitly seek consent in many cases. I interpret these laws as reflecting the values that the 505 million European Union citizens have about their rights.

I’ve not been able to tell whether European citizens were a part of the 600,000 people in the study. The PNAS report said that it was focused on English speakers, which perhaps explains why the UK was the first country to launch an inquiry. If Europeans citizens were involved we might get more insight into how the EU and its member nations view ethical conduct in research. If they were not, there is still some possibility that we will learn more about what the EU means when it asks “data controllers” (i.e. those collecting, holding, and manipulating data about individuals) to be transparent in their processes.

I’ve read a number of pieces that express concern about what it means to ask people to consent to a research study. Will we lose enough people that we can’t study network effects? How do we embed it into systems? These are really good questions. But, at the same time I don’t think we can or should ignore citizen’s rights and this will mean being knowledgable about systems that do not just begin and end with the IRB. Its not just because its the law, but because without it I think we demonstrate a lack of respect for other’s values. And I often think that’s quite the point of an ethical review, to get beyond our own perspective and think about those we are studying.

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  1. The lack of commentary that Michael deplores may be due to the huge volume out there — without time to read it all, no way of knowing how to build something useful other than join in the shouting. My first observation is that the study didn’t show emotions were manipulated. If a friend relays something downbeat, such as “my manager sucks,” are you more likely to reply by saying “yeah, most managers suck” or by saying “my manager is great!” If you feel the latter, you will likely pass. Nothing about mood change is proven. Next, of course, if FB found that emphasizing certain words made people more likely to click on ads whether their mood was affected or not, they could just do that, not publish it, and save themselves this headache. On the issue of IRBs, tangential to this study, my view is that at least if you get a PhD involving research methods you should be trusted to do the right thing until you screw up, and only then have to deal with an IRB. Surgeons are not subject to external review before each operation, and generally more is at stake. If they screw up, sure, they should be reviewed.

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