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Facebook “research” marks a new low for the social giant

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Spindustry Digital in Clive, Iowa.

I’ve been watching the rolling debate about Facebook’s latest flub. Some numbskull at Facebook decided it was OK to manipulate user’s feeds to prove that negatively spreads FB dislikefaster when people view negative posts. Guess what? It worked! Shouldn’t we all be grateful to have this bit of knowledge bestowed on us from our kind and benevolent Facebook overlords?

Stories like this make the social scientist in me very angry. It might be time to educate people on what “real” academic-type research looks like – and how much it differs from the head games Facebook is currently playing on its users.

Real research starts out with a hypothesis. It looks like Facebook at least got that right. They hypothesized that sadness and bad moods are contagious. Not a bad premise, actually. And it could be very useful information to have. But, unfortunately, Facebook went off the research reservation after the hypothesis was formed.

The next step is questioning the ethical boundaries of the proposed research. Anyone who’s ever majored in psychology will recognize these simple guidelines:

  1. Informed consent: Researchers must let the subjects know they are being observed or studied. Facebook hid behind their terms of service document (which absolutely no one reads) which apparently allows these kinds of shenanigans to occur.
  2. Professional fidelity and responsibility: Researchers have a duty to reconcile their “need to know” with their subjects’ “right to know” about the experiment. This goes to the very heart of a scientist’s job. They have to err on the side of caution.
  3. Upholding the dignity of the subjects being studied: The researchers simply assume that since their sample size was small and the experiment brief, that they didn’t cause any harm. That is dangerous and outrageous. No, we didn’t hear reports of people jumping out of windows – but the repercussions may never be known.

To make matters worse post study, the researchers gave a lame “apology” that felt more like excuses. “But, but but…we meant well. And we didn’t hurt anybody. And we’re Facebook. We care about people.” And, let’s get real. Facebook has had plenty to apologize for in recent years. They should be getting better at it, not worse. Sounds like they need a righteous PR pro at the table. I’m not available, but I heard Jenny McCarthy’s looking for a new gig. Oh wait, she’s not a professional. Nevermind.

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Comments

Ah a blog with an edge. I like it. Way to go Claire.

What they did is not exactly above board as you point out. However I'd argue that it was a trifling act compared to the kind of manipulation that goes on in advertising all the time.

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