The PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly had a discussion of the ethics of social media sites like Facebook and OK Cupid to elicit a specific reaction from their users. I have written before about how sites like these manipulate news feeds either to tell you what they think you want to hear or to bring about a desired response (see related posts below). The clip discusses how Facebook uses in it's disclaimer how the data from the site will be used for research purposes in a long document with just two words. To protect them from lawsuits, Facebook used an institutional review board but sometimes unethical studies slip through.
The founder of OK Cupid defends their actions saying that all media outlets manipulate content to get a certain reaction from their users. Facebook admits to manipulating news feeds to affect turnout in the 2012 election which seems to have had an effect. Of course everyone from the girl scouts to ISIS manipulates the content of their words and actions to achieve a desired effect but when individuals' newsfeeds are manipulated (or in the case of OK Cupid who their matches for dates are) they are influencing their content.
We like to believe that the sports teams we like, favorite singers, or favorite social media sites are dependable and part of who we are. When some one participates willingly in a research study a true informed consent is given so that the participant has a reasonable understanding of what is going to happen. What these sites did was to mislead participants who believed that they were just communicating with their friends. There is always the chance of unintended consequences of exposing someone to something they did not want to see or in denying someone the chance to see something that they did want to see.
|The Infant from the Little Albert Experiment|
The famous behaviorist, BF Skinner wrote a novel called Walden II where he described a utopian state where people's actions were shaped by behaviorist principles. The principles are based on the stimulus-reward-response pattern found in Pavlov's dogs and replicated by John Watson in his little Albert experiment from the 1920's where an infant was trained to be afraid of a rabbitt (It would be totally unethical to do today). Skinner's vision was roundly criticized as a totalitarian state. While there is some support for a stimulus-response pattern influencing behavior there is also evidence that people can think independently in some circumstances which led to the cognitive revolution in psychology.