Target: Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook
Goal: Demand that Facebook obtain explicit consent from the site’s users prior to subjecting them to future academic experiments
Is it ethical, or legal, to treat unwitting consumers like lab rats? One company’s answer may surprise you. Consumer rights advocates are outraged by revelations that social media giant Facebook experimented on thousands of users without their permission, attempting to influence their emotions by manipulating the content of online posts visible to them on the site. The New York Times reports that Facebook assumed blanket consent as a condition of use, and therefore saw no reason to ask permission before involving people in the experiment.
Nearly 700,000 users unknowingly participated in the experiment, which sought to “determine whether it could alter the emotional state of [Facebook] users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content,” as described by the Wall Street Journal. Researchers did so by promoting or censoring content which contained words considered positively or negatively charged, thus altering users’ news feeds to see if exposure to negative posts, for example, led people to post more negative content than they otherwise would. The study’s findings indicate that such manipulation of content did indeed influence users’ emotions.
While such research may seem harmless, there is tremendous potential for abuse. As stated in the Guardian, “commentators voiced fears that the process could be used for political purposes in the runup to elections or to encourage people to stay on the site by feeding them happy thoughts and so boosting advertising revenues.”
Experimenting on people without their permission is indecent and unethical. Demand that Facebook’s management refrain from conducting future experiments on the site’s users without first obtaining their explicit consent and explaining how the research will be used.
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
Facebook’s experimental manipulation of users’ emotions without their consent has been met with understandable outrage. While use of your social media network may technically be free, consumers are quickly learning that there is indeed a price to pay. That you feel no reason, legally or ethically, to obtain permission before subjecting users to experimentation is appalling.
Clay Johnson, who helped manage the online face of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, has raised several disturbing questions via Twitter. “”Could the CIA incite revolution in Sudan by pressuring Facebook to promote discontent? Should that be legal? Could Mark Zuckerberg swing an election by promoting Upworthy [a website aggregating viral content] posts two weeks beforehand? Should that be legal?”
Indeed, Mr. Zuckerberg, it should not be legal. And regardless, such unethical practices are certain to further alienate your already fractured consumer base. People enjoy Facebook as a tool to help them stay connected with friends and family, but they value their privacy more than you seem to believe. I must insist that you obtain explicit permission from users before involving them in any further experimentation, and inform them of the scope and intent of the research.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: Janet Stephens via Wikimedia Commons