The Law and Ethics of Experiments on Social Media Users
Social media networks like Facebook and OkCupid routinely conduct social psychological experiments by systematically manipulating people’s environment to test their reactions. While academics do conduct similar experiments, academics typically must obtain both approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and informed consent from participants, neither of which is required in social media networks.
Legal regulations are in place to protect the health, safety, and dignity of research participants, as well as to ensure that the costs and benefits of research are distributed equitably, that research is not seriously compromised by researchers’ self-interest, and that researchers do not act in dishonest ways that threaten public trust. U.S. law implements the Belmont Report’s principles in the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Research Subjects (also known as the Common Rule), which specifies what and how information must be provided to research participants and requires each institution to have an IRB that ensures covered research is conducted ethically.
Three questions arise from looking at Facebook’s and OkCupid’s experiments through the lens of the Common Rule:
- Did the researchers perform regulated “research involving human subjects?”
- Did they obtain informed consent?
- Did they obtain IRB approval?
The author argues that these experiments conducted by social media networks fall into the category of research involving human subjects and that the terms of service users have agreed to do not constitute informed consent because users are not given the opportunity to opt out of these experiments. These experiments also have questionable standards; for instance, Facebook included minors in an emotional contagion study without notifying the parents of minor subjects nor did Facebook obtained the parents’ agreement. These experiments also violate the debriefing criterion in the Common Rule as subjects were not debriefed at all, or do not even realize that they were an experimental subject. Last but not least, these experiments were not approved by any qualifying IRB.
As much as the Common Rule reflects a consensus about academic research on social media users, the author believes that the Common Rule should cover corporate research on social media users and that social media IRB can be implemented in the form of an internal control for ensuring that companies understand all the research their employees are conducting on users. The author also notes that experimenting on users without informing them may constitute a deceptive, and sometimes unfair, trade practice. As such, the Federal Trade Commission is in a good position to require companies to disclose their research practices to users.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
This article discusses the ethics and legal implications of, as well as the need for regulations on, experiments conducted by social media networks, a prevalent practice among tech companies.