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Facebook Research is for the Betterment of Human Kind and as a Business they should be Free to Undertake Large Scale Online Experiments without the need to Contact their Users.
Facebook and many other network platforms have used large scale online experiments, often without the consent and awareness of their users. These experiments are usually to better understand their users, in attempts to better their business and provide reasons for human actions and responses relevant to them and that industry. However, the question remains should businesses like Facebook be allowed to conduct such experimental research without receiving consent from their users? To answer this first we must understand what this research is and what are the implications of it to the users. The ‘experiment evidence of massive-scale emotion contagion through social network’ (Kramer et al. 2014, p. 8788) article explores how the emotional state of one can be transferred to another through emotional contagion. This notion is taken a step further by transferring this positive or negative emotion via networks, such as Facebook. This method faces many criticisms; one being that the experiment itself does not take into consideration the experience where a person’s positive or negative emotion is the result of an incident or an interaction rather than the exposure to another’s emotion. This criticism is more from a technical point of view. From an ethical stand point (Reid 2017) the issue is that mass research was conducted on people without their consent regarding a matter which would otherwise be considered private (their emotional response) by many. This issue will be further explored from an ethical (Reid 2017) and legal perspective, an in relevant contexts.
In 2014 Facebook was in the medias eye for experimenting on its 1.3 billion users. Facebook researchers altered the newsfeed of about 700,000 of its users without informing them (Wholsen 2014). When this became public there was an outrage by many users while some other people (mainly businesses) argued that there is nothing wrong with what Facebook did or the way they went about doing it. The argument for research was supported by claims that Facebook conducts many forms of research in a variety of fields to enhance the “Facebook experience” (Wholsen 2014) for users and better the advertising and promotions Facebook offers to its business clients. Additionally, if they had asked for consent from each user it would be a lengthy, time consuming and difficult process as there are 1.3 billion users. After commencement of the emotion contagion research experiment Facebooks reported revenue and profits increased, the research being one of the contributing factors (Wholsen 2014). It is therefore evident that this research is for the betterment of businesses. However, can that be said about the betterment of mankind?
The sensitivity to context ‘privacy in public’ notion focuses on users perceived online environment. Many users may believe that the research Facebook conduct was a breach of their private discussions and postings whereas others may think that it was a public act. The mix of these perceptions only aid in the difficultly of knowing what can be collected and distributed. There are three ethical concepts derived from what the basic human rights to privacy are. These are; confidentiality, anonymity, and informed consent (Eynon et al. 2009, p.188). For there to be full disclosure, consent and to be considered as an ethical means of obtaining data users, would need to know what they are consenting to and to what extent they are able to give this consent (Eynon et al. 2009, p.189) Based on this it is apparent that Facebook did not implement the informed consent aspect of this concept during their research. Additionally, Facebook didn’t submit a proposal to Institutional Review Board for pre-approval of the study. From a legal perspective Facebook asks for consent from users in their Data Usage Policy agreement during sing up. This agreement addresses that user’s information can be used for testing and research purposes (Kramer et al. 2014, p. 8789). However, this is a very weak form of consent and does not address the forms of research which can take place. This is a very broad statement and can include a lot or very little depending on interpretation. This agreement is compulsory to abide with no opt out options, if users are to use the social media program.
This issue raises puts all Facebooks practices into question by its users and media including what this means for Facebook advertisements in terms of how honest they must be with what they are advertising based on the data collected. Although the Code of Practice acts as a guide to prevent many misleading advertisements including the requirement that advertisers are not to be deceptive or misleading in their advertisements and have evidence to support their advertised claims, there are still loop holes (Reid 2017). Facebook is available in more than 130 countries and not all of these countries have a Code of Practice and some have varying rules and guideline in theirs. Those countries not covered by the Code of Practice put their users at risk from misleading and deceptive advertisement, from Facebook and other businesses.
There is a lack of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by Facebook. CRS addresses many factors including quality of environment, employment practice, diversity, benefits and relationship for employees and consumer protection (Reid 2017). The policy is flexible enough to be applicable across all industries and in a range of situations. In this case, specifically addressing the negligence of the consumer protection factor. There are many benefits to complying with CSR for businesses and their customers including increase in profits in the long run, improved public image and the evasion of government interface. However, the downfall of not complying are reduction in profits and creates bad image for the businesses reducing benefits to owners/stakeholders. This is evident for many companies who have adapted this method of research and avoided transparency by not contacting their consumers. Mass scale research provides great data but brings the high risk that the data collect can be tracked back to the participant/user because the data itself is so complete (Eynon et al. 2009, p.191) Through there are billions of Facebook users the contagion research conduct is so complete that the through the likes (clicks) and their user references can allow for back tracking. Even if the information collect is anonymous there is still room for some access back to users (Eynon et al. 2009, p.192), particularly for infamous hackers. Using this situation in any other context, for example Dungons and Dragons. This online game allows it’s users to have conversations with other users during the game. This conversation can be tracked back by linking their text snippet to context of the conversation even when encrypted (Eynon et al. 2009, p.192) and like so the virtual game has had issues with piracy where they conduct research on users without consent, later exposed through a hacking incident. This is just one of the many examples where mass scale research has gone wrong because the company had failed to contact their users.
Exposing users to something that causes physiological status changes is
experimentation is the kind of thing that requires user consent. Informed consent is the most essential part of research ethics. It
creates a trusting bond between a participant and a researcher which allows for
accurate and true data to be collected without the objection from the
participant or in this case the users. As a bare minimum, all businesses should
disclose on their website to their users that their formation or data is being
tracked anonymously. Lack of doing so a breach of a person’s privacy, at least
from an ethical perspective. Therefore, this in no way will better mankind only
create trust issues due to lack of transparency. In ability to trust a business
is bad for the business itself and its customers, long term. If customers no
longer trust a business they will slowly separate themselves from them looking
for alternatives. Additionally, it creates a bad reputation for the business,
as it did for Facebook who is still in the medias eye for it in a negative
light despite their public apology. This negative back lash is one that will
associate with the business in the long term and gradually it will (and has)
caused many issue to conduct other forms of research, including Facebook having
their unconsented research. To conclude, there are many benefits for undertaking large scale online experiments
without user/participant consent in the sort run however long term it does not
benefit anyone let alone better mankind.
Eynon, R, Schroeder, R & Fry, J 2009, ‘new techniques in online research: challenges for research ethics’, Twenty- First Century Society, vol.4, no.2, pp.187-199
Kramer, A, Guillory, J & Handcock, J 2014, ‘Experiment evidence of massive-scale emotion contagion through social network’, PNAS, vol. 111, no. 24, pp. 8788-8790.
Reid, D 2017, ‘Lecture 1’, ADV20001, Advertising Issues: Regulation, Ethics & Cultural Considerations, Learning material on Blackboard, Swinburne University of Technology, May 29, viewed 9 July 2017.
Reid, D 2017, ‘Lecture 2’, ADV20001, Advertising Issues: Regulation, Ethics & Cultural Considerations, Learning material on Blackboard, Swinburne University of Technology, June 5, viewed 9 July 2017.
Reid, D 2017, ‘Lecture 17’, ADV20001, Advertising Issues: Regulation, Ethics & Cultural Considerations, Learning material on Blackboard, Swinburne University of Technology, July 10, viewed 9 July 2017.
Wholsen, M 2014, ‘Facebook won’t stop experimenting on you, it’s just too lucrative’, Wired, 10 March, viewed 10 July 2017, <https://www.wired.com/2014/10/facebook-wont-stop-experimenting-just-lucrative/>.
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