Facebook psychology experiment raises ire

Staff, Globe and Mail, Jul 02, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

There has been quite a bit of negative reaction to the revelation that Facebook has been experimenting on its users (this, of course, won't stop Facebook from experimenting like this, but it will stop them from publishing the results). Here's what you need to know, according to GigaOm, about the experiments. Here's Facebook's defense. Still, some people (including Audrey Watters) wand to de-Facebook. They'll be on Twitter (do you really think Twitter is any more ethical than Facebook?). But there's no escape. Even if you're gone, you'll be part of Facebook's secret dossier of individuals. "There are no protections against shadow profiling. Just like with so-called "people search" websites, we have no legal mandates with which we can identify and remove our information from their systems."

But if you think all this begins with Facebook, or even with the internet, then I think that you're being terribly naive. How do you think credit scores are calculated - by magic? Companies like Equifax have been maintaining 'shadow profiles' for decades. "According to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the three largest players in the credit reporting market — Equifax, Experian Information Solutions Inc. and TransUnion LLC — each maintain files on at least 200 million Americans culled from about 10,000 information providers." (Via) The insurance industry, as well, relies on such profiles when assigning risk and calculating rates. Marketing agencies collect dossiers to help them target mailing campaigns. Political parties keep track of voters. The list goes on and on. And they all experiment with different messaging to produce different results. So let's not all be shocked by this.

And the social experimentation continues unabated. There's a long history. There are well-established procedures and ethics regulations which are routinely ignored by industry. Indeed, they're popular entertainment. They're passed off as art. Or reality series. Grocery stores and retail outlets constantly experiment with traffic flows and consumer behaviour. All the big data and learning analytics studies - what do you think they are doing? Governments and companies frequently experiment on soldiers, welfare recipients - indeed, any person from a disadvantaged group is fair game. So, again, let's not be shocked by all this.

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