Obligations in the Brave New Internet


Twitter is excited with reports of Facebook’s recently-published paper. In short, researchers manipulated 680,000 feeds to change the users' moods. You can read about it, depending on what kind of editorial slant you prefer, on engadget, slate, forbes, &c.

Feelings aside, there is a deep issue. Just what are our obligations to each other as experimenters?

Much of the complaints about the Facebook paper rest on the concept of informed consent, and whether Facebook’s user agreement constitutes such.

It is clear to me that it does not. But we kid ourselves by pretending we expect every business to gain informed consent from its customers before doing science.

Granted the usual business experimentation is somewhat different. If a grocery store experiments with food scents to drive pie sales, we do not expect the grocer to obtain informed consent. However, there is a presumption that the grocer will only ever test ‘positive’ options. We expect grocers to avoid ‘eau d'skunk’, which could cause negative feelings.

So, it is possible that informed consent is not required when all the treatments will cause positive feelings? But we allow other companies to experiment with negative feelings.

Though academic research on sensationalism in television news is scant, at least one paper, Explaining Effects of Sensationalism on Liking of Television News Stories, indicates that the extent to which stories are ‘liked’ is influenced by their sensationalism. It is not hard to imagine local news production managers choosing more sensationalist stories to drive viewership, causing negative feelings in viewers. However, we do not expect the newsman to gain informed consent.

Neither the grocer nor the newsman will publish his results in PNAS. Informed consent should be a requirement for publishing in a journal, but should not publishing your work, or publishing without peer review, exempt from informed consent? The experiment still took place.

Neither grocer nor newsman will conduct a proper scientific experiment, with simultaneous treatment of randomly selected treatment groups. Their findings will be conflated by dozens of temporal and treatment order variables. But should poor experimental design, i.e. poor science, exempt the grocer or newsman from informed consent?

There is clearly a continuum of experimentation occurring every day, from a waitperson trying out different greetings to get a bigger tip, to large scale medical experiments. At what point should we require what level of informed consent? Is Facebook’s experiment like that of the grocer, or like that of Zimbardo?

I do not have an answer to these questions, but I think that ‘Facebook did not obtain informed consent’ is not the full story.

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