Facebook’s scandal forces marketers to examine their ethics

As Mark Zuckerberg testifies before congress, marketers are re-evaluating how they use consumer data and steps they can take to ensure privacy is respected while growing sales.

It’s a strange time to be a data scientist.

News about Cambridge Analytica’s ‘problematic’ (some might prefer the term “morally bankrupt”) approach to data analysis has left consumers on Facebook feeling suspicious and defenseless. The community of social, behavioral and data scientists who work in marketing and communications have never looked more like the enemy.

It’s important to note that the firm’s alleged impact on electoral upsets such as the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the Brexit vote might be exaggerated. When witnessing a complex and unexplained phenomenon, never trust a simple answer—especially when it’s got a sales angle.

Regardless of impact, the ends of unethical data collection do not justify the means. It’s more important than ever to talk about ethics in research, especially as it pertains to social media. We are all, collectively, creating a massive data set—one “like” or photo at a time. This data set has tremendous power for those who can find insights and opportunities in it.

With great power, comes great responsibility.

Whose obligation is it to develop and enforce ethics in this quickly changing industry? Can regulation force Facebook and the social media giants into better protecting data and privacy, as some recent legislation proposes? Is it up to the individual user of these platforms to secure and safeguard their own content? How can ethicists and academics hold the business research community accountable?

These are big questions that need ongoing discussion.

In the meantime, however, there is no excuse for unethical research methods, and no place for unethical researchers.

As a group of data scientists, analysts and strategists who build marketing strategies, PR and marketing pros work in some similar ways to Cambridge Analytica. We analyze social behavior, profiles and conversations, at scale, using data scientists, analysts and anthropologists to unearth insights that can make communications and marketing activities more effective. We look at the conversations happening on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Conscientious marketers put ethics and user privacy at the core of their approach, which means their activities are not invasive or predatory for the communities they study.

In fact, data-driven consumer research can produce tangible benefit for these communities. For a healthcare client, these techniques allowed us to understand the experience of subjects who would be unlikely to participate in more traditional research methods such as focus groups or surveys. We discovered that these subjects were not just hidden from traditional research, but that they were also hidden from support organizations and critical patient care. This information led directly to the development of better support networks and services.

So how can data scientists and the organizations working with them navigate these complexities ethically?

To start, ethics need to be proactive not reactive.

Our team has developed a set of ethical guidelines that we—and any contractors we use—must review and institute from the start of a research project. We outline how to get the data and treat the data once it’s sourced using the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoIR) guiding principles of human dignity, autonomy, protection, safety, maximum benefit and minimum harm. We also review stringent academic ethics protocols and adapt them to this business environment. For example, we conceal our research subject’s identity by using pseudonyms and paraphrasing. We aggregate our data to conceal profile details and make identifying individuals nearly impossible. We follow users’ privacy settings first and foremost, and do not look for ways to break them.

The internet is a changing landscape, with new social platforms and new rules created daily. To be successful, you must adapt to these changes, a process which may involve revisiting your ethical guidelines from time to time.

Any research project that doesn’t put ethics first is built to fail.

Further resources:

Becca Young is a senior vice president for NATIONAL. Kayla Musyi is a qualitative research coordinator for NATIONAL. A version of this article also appeared on the Shift Communications blog.

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