August 21, 2014 by David
Although there is no clear definition of what Big Data exactly is, my understanding is that it is a collection of raw data from traditional and digital sources collected from peoples’ every day transactions, interactions, communications, activities and movements. These activities are tracked via a person’s online presence, be it with mobile, digital or other devices. One of the biggest big data sources and researchers is Facebook, whereby every “like”, comment, status update, click, website search, or message, is accumulated and stored for ‘data mining’ by the company. In Facebook’s own words it collects, manages and analyzes data to “drive informed decisions in areas critical to the success of the company, and conduct social science research of both internal and external interest” (Watson, 2014). Recently Facebook was under scrutiny for manipulating the emotions of almost 700,000 users in one week in January 2012 through the manipulation of users’ news feeds.
Although Facebook has always manipulated the results of users’ News Feeds, this new ‘research experiment’ has cross a line for many users, including myself. It purposely set out to ‘mind control’ or alter the perceptions, emotions and ways users interact with the data that Facebook placed before them. Sara M. Watson from The Atlantic argues that “when Boeing does research, we learn about flight. When Facebook does research, we learn about Facebook” suggesting that although Facebook publicly stated that the research experiment was “for the good of society” (Watson, 2014), in reality it was done only for the good of Facebook. It helped Facebook understand and enhance its future products.
Vindu Goel of the Australian Financial Review suggests that new rules should be put in place to limit a private organisation’s ability to make users into test subjects and with the help of Dr Gray they suggest a simple test, “if you’re afraid to ask your subjects for their permission to conduct the research, there’s probably a deeper ethical issue that must be considered” (Goel, 2014). However, Goel goes on to suggest more legal binding solutions including an ‘opt-in process’ for “projects that involve big changes to an internet users’ experience, and a debriefing system.” Professer Aral suggests that “we need to understand how to think about these (new) rules without chilling the research that has the promise of moving us miles and miles ahead of where we are today in understanding human populations” (Goel, 2014). For Watson a solution is that “we need researchers with non-commercial interests who can run and replicate this research outside of the platform’s influence.”
Hopefully from this incident Facebook has learnt its lesson and will attempt to notify or gain permission from its users’ for any future research experiments; for to continue to conduct them without public knowledge is as Watson suggests, “the worst outcome of this debacle” (Watson, 2014). For me, like many other users, it was not the result, nor the research experiment that has caused anger, but rather the lack of consent given to Facebook by its users. As to ‘mess with…emotions’ (Goel, 2014) can have dangerous consequences.
Watson, S.M. 2014, ‘Data Science: What the Facebook Controversy is Really About’, The Atlantic, weblog, The Atlantic, viewed 20 August 2014, <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/data-science-what-the-facebook-controversy-is-really-about/373770/?single_page=true>
Goel, V. 2014, ‘What Price Ethics in a Big Data World?’, Australian Financial Review, weblog, viewed 20 August 2014, <http://www.afr.com/p/technology/what_price_ethics_in_big_data_world_FXJfLP287uy9rS0FHTemlN>