It’s long been said that if you’re getting something for free online, then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. It’s a reference to the one-sided bargain for personal information that powers so many social businesses – the way that “infomopolies” as I call them exploit the knowledge they accumulate about us.
Now it’s been revealed that we’re even lower than product: we’re lab rats.
Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, with collaborators from UCSF and Cornell, this week reported on a study in which they tested how Facebook users respond psychologically to alternatively positive and negative posts. Their experimental technique is at once ingenious and shocking. They took the real life posts of nearly 700,000 Facebook members, and manipulated them, turning them slightly up- or down-beat. And then Kramer at al measured the emotional tone in how people reading those posts reacted in their own feeds. See Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks, Adam Kramer,Jamie Guillory & Jeffrey Hancock, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v111.24, 17 June 2014.
The resulting scandal has been well-reported by many, including Kashmir Hill in Forbes, whose blog post nicely covers how the affair has unfolded, and includes a response by Adam Kramer himself.
Plenty has been written already about the dodgy (or non-existent) ethics approval, and the entirely contemptible claim that users gave “informed consent” to have their data “used” for research in this way. I draw attention to the fact that consent forms in properly constituted human research experiments are famously thick. They go to great pains to explain what’s going on, the possible side effects and potential adverse consequences. The aim of a consent form is to leave the experimental subject in no doubt whatsoever as to what they’re signing up for. Contrast this with the Facebook Experiment where they claim informed consent was represented by a fragment of one sentence buried in thousands of words of the data usage agreement. And Kash Hill even proved that the agreement was modified after the experiment started! These are not the actions of researchers with any genuine interest in informed consent.
I was also struck by Adam Kramer’s unvarnished description of their motives. His response to the furore (provided by Hill in her blog) is, as she puts it, tone deaf. Kramer makes no attempt whatsoever at a serious scientific justification for this experiment:
That is, this large scale psychological experiment was simply for product development.
Some apologists for Facebook countered that social network feeds are manipulated all the time, notably by advertisers, to produce emotional responses.
Now that’s interesting, because for their A-B experiment, Kramer and his colleagues took great pains to make sure the subjects were unaware of the manipulation. After all, the results would be meaningless if people knew what they were reading had been emotionally fiddled with.
In contrast, the ad industry has always insisted that today’s digital consumers are super savvy, and they know the difference between advertising and real-life. Yet the foundation of the Facebook experiment is that users are unaware of how their online experience is being manipulated. The ad industry’s illogical propaganda [advertising is just harmless fun, consumers can spot the ads, they’re not really affected by ads all that much … Hey, with a minute] has only been further exposed by the Facebook Experiment.
Advertising companies and Social Networks are increasingly expert at covertly manipulating perceptions, and now they have the data, collected dishonestly, to prove it.