June 30, 2014

Nothing in Life is Free

And when it comes to social media this is one gift horse you should definitely look in its mouth. 

Of course, I'm referencing Facebook and how it manipulated almost 700,000 users' feeds to see if the amount of positive or negative information presented influenced the sentiment in the posts of those users. Guess what. It did. Makes sense....when I worked as a standardized patient the first thing we were told was to go home and watch a comedy to help us break the mood of the pain/depression we were acting out during the day. 

The interest in this study however is less about the findings, and more about the ethics concerning how the research was conducted. What you need to know is that no individual user signed up for this study. Facebook didn't ask people to participate. Think about that. For a week, you may have been fed a disproportionate amount of positive or negative news from your friends, news sites, groups and companies you follow. What you once thought was a fair representation of what was going on in your circle of connections may have been skewed. On purpose. 

Now, Facebook cites within its ToS it can use the information it receives for internal operations including research and service improvement. This section found under policies is named "How we use the information we receive." Wait, WHAT? Based on the policy, information received by Facebook the company can do research. Ok. I buy that. Most companies collects information on its customers/users to help better serve them - whether that's through recommending a new product, developing a new feature, you get the idea.

But nowhere in the policy does it say that in order to receive the information to conduct the research, that the company has the ability to manipulate the fundamental nature of the service itself. Oh wait, I'm in PR. I can't possibly believe this to be true... 

Let's be real. Almost everything online is manipulated in some way. Companies run pricing tests to see which number will drive the most sales. A/B tests may look at how people respond to new imagery. Search engines if not driven by advertising, is driven by teams of marketing experts looking at SEO/SEM. So what's ethical, what's not, and where do we draw the line? Is that even possible? 

When chatting with friends this weekend about privacy and how data is used (not specifically about the Facebook study), I was shocked to find out that not a single person in the group really cared about how their data could be used. The resounding consensus was that it didn't impact their day-to-day so it didn't seem to warrant their attention. 

My question is this, if how information is collected isn't through the natural way you interact with the service, and is instead manipulated to the point of interrupting your behaviour and psychological response to the information presented, is it right? Are you comfortable with it? Should the potential cons outweigh the pros? 

One of the first things a good PR pro builds their career upon is that transparency is key. I'll be the first to admit that while I think the approach taken is unethical, I won't be cancelling my Facebook account. Knowledge is power after all, and because I'm in PR I'm generally quite aware of how my data is used, and what's happening behind the scenes. If nothing else, I hope people will at least give this pause for consideration in how they post, what sites they use, and understand that situations like this do and will continue to occur. It's important to understand that the information you read is being presented to you. It may even be manipulated. It may not be organic. 

I also hope that this study encourages companies to be explicit in their intent. That studies are conducted in a transparent way - with notifications to users. And that those in the legal profession take a hard look at this example to help build legislation around data usage to best protect the people using these services. 

What do you think about the study? Will this change how you view the sites you use? Will you be using them differently or cancel an account?