Facebook has been experimenting on us, and getting scientific publications out of us. They took advantage of their large numbers of users to do a study on more than half a million subjects on how positive and negative messages affect attitude. I was surprised — I know I could never get approval for such a project (if I were a psychologist, that is). But apparently they had IRB approval.
Did an institutional review board—an independent ethics committee that vets research that involves humans—approve the experiment?
Yes, according to Susan Fiske, the Princeton University psychology professor who edited the study for publication.
“I was concerned,” Fiske told The Atlantic, “until I queried the authors and they said their local institutional review board had approved it—and apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time.”
Wait. I thought one simple, basic criterion was this: do the subjects know that they are in an experiment? Did they voluntarily sign up to be tested? You don’t have to spell out exactly what they’re being tested for, but they do have to understand that they are entering an artificial situation in which they are going to have some sort of evaluation done.
Oh, yeah, the APA says something like that.
When psychologists conduct research or provide assessment, therapy, counseling, or consulting services in person or via electronic transmission or other forms of communication, they obtain the informed consent of the individual or individuals using language that is reasonably understandable to that person or persons except when conducting such activities without consent is mandated by law or governmental regulation or as otherwise provided in this Ethics Code.
I’m pretty sure that when I signed up for facebook, it was to be part of social media, to interact with other people who had also signed up for the service. I don’t remember agreeing to be a guinea pig for whatever manipulations the company wanted to carry out.
But then, maybe I’m just naive. Maybe we signed over our rights and privacy to the corporations when we were five years old and joined the Chuck E. Cheese Birthday Club.
Also notice that the APA rules do have an exception. Here it is:
Psychologists may dispense with informed consent only (1) where research would not reasonably be assumed to create distress or harm and involves (a) the study of normal educational practices, curricula, or classroom management methods conducted in educational settings; (b) only anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or archival research for which disclosure of responses would not place participants at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation, and confidentiality is protected; or (c) the study of factors related to job or organization effectiveness conducted in organizational settings for which there is no risk to participants’ employability, and confidentiality is protected or (2) where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations.
I’d have to argue that the facebook study does not meet the exception, because it was not purely observational: they manipulated the news items that their users saw. They can’t simultaneously argue that their tinkering with facebook users’ stimuli showed an effect on attitudes, and that their tinkering did not affect their subjects. That, to me, is the key problem — not that they’re analyzing users’ interactions, but that they’re now reaching out to attempt to modify what users do.