Facebook's user-manipulating A/B testing under investigation
Facebook's testing of emotion-manipulation using their unaware users has caught the attention of a UK regulator. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched an investigation into whether Facebook violated data collection laws during their study.
In one of the tests, Facebook removed positive posts from thousands of users and measured whether the amount of negative posts grew as an impact. Can you imagine if a person suffering from depression goes on Facebook to be filled with negative posts from around the world and their friends?
Imagine if that person then commit suicide.
It's extreme, but a very possible situation. The actual results of the study, luckily, showed a very marginal difference in the mood of posts by individual users. You can ask yourself whether you think Facebook would have released the study had they caused a mass depression.
A/B testing is useful, commonplace, and helps to ensure a better end-user experience. When you sign-up for Facebook it is in the terms the company is perfectly free to conduct such tests. However, the line which gives consent for "data analysis, testing, [and] research" was reportedly added four months after the study took place. The other issue critics hold is that no due-process was taken through the ethics board and therefore no thought given to the study's potential impact.
The ICO will be reaching out to Ireland's data protection group to further the investigation due to Facebook's European HQ being based in Dublin. They are unsure if any laws were broken, but if so, the ICO can force organizations to change their policies and levy fines of up to £500,000.
A fine of that sum hardly puts a dent in the $2.5 billion revenue made by Facebook in the last quarter alone - but would stand as a future warning for the company and others.
Adam Kramer, a researcher on the project, wrote in a Facebook post: “The goal of all our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service. Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone,” He continues: “I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused.”
Do you think Facebook should be held accountable for its user-manipulation? Let us know in the comments.