What does Facebook’s controversial study have to do with sustainability?

If you’re not up to speed on the recent Facebook mood manipulation research controversy, check out Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment at The Atlantic. OK, ready? Now read this Washington Post op-ed piece, Facebook’s controversial study is business as usual for tech companies but corrosive for universities, by NYU journalism professor, Jay Rosen, who also blogs at PressThink.

I’m rehashing much of it here not because I care about the specific ethical controversy at hand, but rather because it highlights so well the struggle of higher education to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, a struggle that has everything to do with our urgent and collective need to transition to sustainability.

What Rosen nails in this piece is the failure to meet the higher standard to which universities must be held. While this stance has been duly attacked elsewhere, allow me to set it up as a straw argument to help make my ultimate point.

We have institutional review boards (IRBs) that evaluate our research proposals to ensure that they meet certain minimum ethical standards, such as informed consent (not that the ethicality of any given research design is ever black and white).

Cornell’s IRB did not even review the potential for the research to be in violation of established standards. According to its own press release, because Communication and Information Science professor Jeffrey Hancock “was not directly engaged in human research…no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.”

This conclusion prompts Rosen to ponder what the Cornell IRB must have been thinking:

Not our data. No review required by us. That’s very different from: this research meets our seal of approval. So whose seal did it have?

The editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sort of. Its editor, Susan Fiske, was concerned about the ethics of how the research had been conducted but was satisfied to learn from the authors that their IRB had approved the research.

All of the minutiae have been much debated, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as naively believing in what Danah Boyd, in her critique of the critics titled What does the Facebook experiment teach us?, calls the “high-browed notion about the purity of research and its exclusive claims on ethical standards.”

Ultimately, I’m less concerned with where fault lies than with how this fiasco, as Rosen claims in his title, is “corrosive for universities.”

When it comes to experimenting on human beings, we should distinguish between “thick” and “thin” forms of legitimacy. Research universities — including my own institution — must be especially attentive to this distinction. Their thing is “thick” legitimacy. Anything that takes them away from it undermines the institution.

For the university to remain relevant in the 21st century, it must distinguish itself from the private sector in multiple ways, not the least of which is holding higher standards for how people are treated when they are the subjects of our research. Yes, the private sector is increasingly the source of some very interesting social science data, for example the kind of data that smartphone apps using location services can produce. But using such data requires great caution, perhaps especially in our self-contradicting culture where heightened privacy concerns coexist with an almost unlimited willingness to share all kinds of personal data.

In walking this tightrope, we must maintain our distinction which is based on things like ethical standards, transparency, and academic freedom in the pursuit of knowledge for the public good, none of which do we associate with the kind of corporate “research” that is usually assumed to be driven by the pursuit of profit.

As Rosen argues, Facebook’s research achieves only a thin legitimacy that is rooted in its claim, despite a complete lack of transparency, that “a strong internal review process” was followed. “That’s not how ‘thick legitimacy’ institutions operate,” continues Rosen.

Neither is: our guy didn’t collect the data, so we’re in the clear. Or: “I’d love to comment but we agreed to let Facebook handle the questions…” Thin, thin, thin. My fellow academics: this is not our niche!

So what is our niche? This is where sustainability comes into the picture. Transitioning to a sustainable future will require some significant transformations. The innovations for driving these transformations, as long as they are hatched out of or later bolstered by the profit motive, will be limiting and self-defeating with no promise of overcoming the structural inequalities inherent in the current economic order.

The niche for universities is as the idea labs in which, unconstrained by the profit motive, critical, systematic and theoretically grounded thinking produces innovations that can be rigorously tested for their transformative potential. For this to work, universities need to uphold “thick” legitimacy, which may be all that separates them from the free and free-flowing ideas and information of the Internet. Unfortunately, it may already be too late.

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