When is an Experiment not an Experiment?

humani victus instrumentaThere have been so many comments and wise things written about the so-called Facebook experiment, I won’t seriously attempt to add to the deluge.

But it struck me that interesting times will be coming up if it turns out that more companies, and companies doing different sorts of things in conjunction with academics, or advertisers, or government are going to need to seek ethical approval for testing their products on consumers, actors, stakeholders, people, politicians, countries, rats or each other. It seems sensible that academic institutions are not allowed to experiment wildly on people any more in the name of social psychology.  But how far is too far?

We live in a time of great sensibility. The promulgation of social and anti-social media has made us all terribly, horribly aware of each others’ feelings. The phrase “trigger warning” abounds. It’s an interesting phrase; it absolves the postee from guilt presumably, if they cause a hurt to someone’s feelings. It also has a certain air of objectivity about it. It conjures up the idea of an audience with numerous and numinous problems, complexes, neuroses or arrays of symptoms that will flare into life upon the receipt of certain stimuli. It creates a sort of supposition of a distance between a victim and the hell that she might unwittingly be exposed to if she reads the wrong thing, or gets spoken to in the wrong way. An inadvertent post or video or comment can suddenly shrink that electronic distance, in that unique way that the web has – catapult our potential victim straight into their personal nightmare. I’m not being flippant about the very real pain and physical problems that viewing the wrong thing can cause.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually fainted on seeing Reservoir Dogs many years ago (there was a variety of reasons behind this; I can manage with seeing blood and pain and gore normally; the funniest thing about it was that it took me a long time to realise that it was the film that had caused me to pass out, and philosophically one could debate how it is that someone can equate such correlation with causation – I might just have been ill and happened to pass out, while co-incidentally watching the film). More recently, I went to a policing conference and watched a video recorded on body-worn camera of an officer being attacked and being brought down. We didn’t see the attack itself. We saw the transformation of an individual who looked harmlessly drunk and incapable into a psychotic wretch, saw the look in his eyes as he came for her, and then heard her struggles and her attempts to remain composed and to keep communicating as she went in and out of consciousness. I sweated watching and hearing it. However, I was focussed on the outcome – we were being exposed to this for a greater good. I cannot imagine what it’s cost her to allow that video to be shown or what she must go through if she has to watch it, or hear people talking about it. That video triggered plenty of “feelings” – you could have heard a pin drop in the room. The thing is, we were all there, not to allow our feelings free rein, or to be entertained, or to make friends, but to learn. This is not why people go onto Facebook primarily.

People are, as ever, confused about varieties of freedom – Berlin’s distinction between freedom from constraint and self-actualisation (freedom to “be oneself”, whatever a “oneself ” is), is disregarded by the media who love rows about freedom of speech versus censorship to rage unfettered, causing monetized clicks a-plenty and the swell of outrage to wash away the tiny mumbling voices of reason. (We will disregard a tempting discussion about how News click-culture is reminiscent of the story of Midas; eventually when all online experience is mediated by monetization, meaning will dissolve and the clicks themselves become worthless). The protest over the “Facebook experiment” seems to have been that people have leapt into indignation at having had their feelings interfered with, in a way that they weren’t expecting.

There is some dissent over the ecological validity of the experiment  – the idea being that the processing of the effects was done syntactically, so it  hadn’t picked up on the “real deep” feelings that people may have been feeling, as most of us accept that people may say one thing, yet feel another. Hang on though, if that’s the case, with respect to the people whose feelings were manipulated by being shown certain “triggering” emotionally laden posts, then don’t we also assume that those people, inadequately expressing themselves about what they’ve seen, themselves also know that whatever someone else might be saying on Facebook might not be what they’re actually feeling? Or do we all think that only we socially shape stuff, and no-one else does? So  those who say the experiment isn’t valid AND that it’s unethical as the word processing was syntactic, not semantic, can’t also say that we’ve been manipulated as their premise is that we don’t say what we feel anyhow. Maybe we were  manipulated or maybe we weren’t, but there is no data one way or the other to say so.

It does also seem a little odd that some of the people who critique the idea of the experiment anyhow as being methodologically unsound, because we don’t really “know” what people are thinking and feeling just from their Facebook posts, (and Tweets), are usually the same people who deny that there is anything inside the Black Box, who say that we are constructed from our words and discourse, and who therefore surely must allow Tweets and Facebook posts to have some sort of phenomenological significance.

Let’s just assume that we do have feelings and they can be manipulated, and that we might express how we feel, sometimes directly, sometimes tangentially, on various media. So we assume that when experimentees say they feel sad, they are sad. And that’s not allowed. University researchers aren’t allowed to make people sad. Ethics boards at Universities though, now they’re allowed to make researchers sad. Or at least, to make us question ourselves deeply. I have personally to admit something here, and say that having recently got an ethics submission back, with a comment about it being a “good submission”, I might well have felt more of a sense of triumph than I should on passing my final viva. (Assuming that I do, and that the ethics board doesn’t send me spiralling into a vortex of self-doubt and questioning about the role of research and academia). Anyhow, I accept that there’s a sort of utilitarian principle non-explicitly in play here: innocent experimentees’ feelings trump researchers’ feelings. So ok, academic institutions have this feeling thing right… But companies? Hmmm. I mean, yes, Big Pharma and Food and so on already have strict standards. What about literature that might “make people sad”? To TV programmes and films? It’s interesting that with media such as TV and books and films, we accept that there might be disturbing content. It’s odd how we’re not allowed to watch what IS / Daesh get up to; their terrible spectacles of the scaffold; and yet there is a massive thirst for the equivalent in Game of Thrones. Do the fictionalised outcomes of the certain mechanisms of power in GoT somehow expiate the effects of the manipulations of the media carried out by extremist groups?

And finally, what happens to governments, if making people sad becomes forbidden; what if governments become unable to create new policy, in case it makes someone sad? Policy is a form of big-scale experimentation, is it not?

I think the most fascinating thing to study – in fact I’m tempted to gather data on this – is the range of reactions that people have to the knowledge that companies are “playing with their minds.” This is the social contagion that is worth examining. What effect does the knowledge of surveillance and control have on people once the media starts spinning the stories? As this so-called experiment (in itself, hardly worthy of the name) is apparently partially Defense funded, I think the meta-experiment would be of more interest to them.

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