Facebook’s Research Vs. Academic Research: Why Oversight Matters

Law professor James Grimmelham has a great breakdown of why Facebook’s social research differs from academic social research and why the difference matters. It boils down to oversight, basically: Academic research proposals have to be submitted to an institutional review board before they can be approved and carried out. It’s a much slower process than industry research wants to have to deal with, but is also much more ethical, especially where participants are concerned.

Facebook, on the other hand, is apparently subjecting each of us to about 10 experiments at any given time, and we aren’t really aware of it. They claim that the participants of their studies – all Facebook users, that is – have given informed consent by agreeing to the extensive legalese that seriously no one ever reads when a new set of policies is issued, but it’s a specious claim that really depends on how you define “informed.” In effect, Facebook users believe that we’re using the network to keep up with our friends and family, but underlying that experience, we’re also being toyed with, emotionally, for the sake of Facebook’s research department and their desire to have an air of legitimacy, and we didn’t really sign up for that.

There’s no transparency in industry-conducted research the way there is in academic research, and whereas information about academic research is accessible to the public, corporations like Facebook can decide on their own whether or not to ever disclose what experiments they’ve run and what results those experiments produced. That means that there could be experiments that went badly for the users and could damage the company’s image, but they wouldn’t have to tell us.

Facebook nominally has a review process, but they only instituted it after all the outrage last year over their “emotion contagion” study was released, it’s nowhere near as rigorous as academic review boards, and it still doesn’t mean that they have to be very, very layman’s-terms-type clear about what they’re doing with or to their users’ experience and why. I’m one of those people who “has to” be on Facebook “for my job,” who responds to people (ever-so-helpfully) saying “If you don’t like Facebook, why don’t you just not use it?” by saying, “Good lord, I tried, I want to, but that’s not the way the world works anymore,” but I get that other people are on Facebook because it is a genuinely useful tool for communication and the easiest way to stay in touch with people they care about. It sucks that Facebook is leveraging that utility against their users.


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