Facebook recently published the results of a highly unethical study in which it manipulated the emotions of nearly 700,000 unwitting users. It's currently facing a firestorm of criticism that isn't likely to die down soon (especially since so far Facebook doesn't seem to understand that it did anything wrong).
My first thoughts, upon learning of the study, were that a) the methodology was clearly not acceptable; b) what the hell was the jury and editorial staff at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) thinking? and c) this really wasn't necessary.
I'll spare you the boring study design discussion, but the short version is that Facebook has access to sufficient user data that it could have extracted the conclusions it sought without manipulation. Simply score the organic, existing feeds of all those users, then evaluate the emotional tone of their subsequent behavior. The data exists, the statistical tools exist, and the results would have arguably been more valid because they would have reflected real-world behaviors instead of artificially induced ones.
In other words, Facebook wasn't just unethical, it was slothful.
Yesterday, though, my colleague over at Scholars & Rogues, Frank Balsinger, got his teeth into the story, and he quickly began asking questions that hadn't occurred to me. Deeply troubling questions. To wit - what are the chances that this Facebook study contributed to actual suicides? What are the chances that any of those potential suicides involved young people - children, teens?
He runs some admittedly, albeit necessarily, dirty and speculative numbers and arrives at ... well, he arrives at results that, at the minimum, suggest that Mark Zuckerberg has some explaining to do.
In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides in the US. Rates of suicide vary significantly among age groups, so I’m entirely unclear how one would pair suicide rate overall with any comparison to the Facebook study’s N of 693,003. That, and it’s believed that, for a host of reasons, suicide is under-reported. Dirty napkin math leaves me starting here.
Population of the US in 2010 was 308,745,538.
Overall suicides as a percentage of population: .01%
Facebook study’s N: 693,003
.01% of 693,003 = 69.3 (~69, hereinafter, 69)
No one - not me, not Frank himself - is suggesting that Balsinger's math is conclusive. But it's sufficient to justify a question. The margin between the decision to take one's own life and the decision to carry on can be razor thin. While it would be ludicrous to assert that someone committed suicide because of a negative Facebook item, it's fair to wonder about a manipulation that adds one more straw to an already overburdened camel's back.
Also, there are heads at PNAS that need rolling. As in, first thing tomorrow morning, if not sooner. Human subjects research guidelines can be an unholy pain, but they exist for a reason. How this study got past their reviewers is a mystery of the first order.