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Speaker Calls for Regulatory Safeguards to Protect Social Media Users

Professor Leslie Meltzer Henry

October 28, 2014

Social media outlets that study user habits and behavior should be required to apply ethical standards that have governed human-subject research for decades, law and bioethics expert Leslie Meltzer Henry said during a visit on Oct. 23.

Some social media companies have admitted to conducting research involving their users’ habits, said Henry, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

In 2012, for example, Facebook manipulated the news-feed content for nearly 700,000 randomly selected users to determine if positive or negative images and stories affected their mood.  Henry noted that the study findings were published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

In another example, Henry said the CEO of OKCupid announced during the summer of 2014 that the online dating site had experimented to see if users would go on dates with people simply because the company indicated they were a good match, even though the algorithms would have predicted the opposite.

Both companies claimed users had agreed to participate in research by endorsing their sites’ terms of use, Henry said.

Yet none of these experiments adhered to longstanding research standards that require human subjects to give informed consent, that enable them to opt out of the study at will and that ensure they should understand potential risks as well as goals of the study, Henry said.  

Studies involving human subjects should be evaluated by disinterested parties who are knowledgeable about ethics and research protocols, such as those who serve on institutional review boards in  academic and scientific spheres, Henry said.

While social media companies claim they were conducting market research, Henry said the systematic approach and statistical modeling used and the companies’ intervention in their users’ behavior amounted to research that merits regulatory oversight.

While clear guidelines apply to human-subject research by federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding, some states are tightening up rules to protect research subjects more broadly, Henry said. Henry said she and other critics are urging policymakers to step up oversight of social media companies’ practices involving human-subject research. 

A new research policy Facebook adopted amid the controversy does little to resolve the problem, Henry said, noting that users of the site will still not be giving informed consent to participate in studies and that there will be no review by outside parties to ensure that ethical standards are used.