We all watched in wonder as the events in Egypt unfolded in recent weeks. What was remarkable for a lot of reasons was the power of social networking. The deaths and beatings of individuals became symbolic of the experience of the population, they took on much greater meaning than merely individual incidents.
Social networking is obviously extremely powerful. However, what is the power of market research done on the social networks? Target marketing for advertisements and new contacts has been prevalent for some time, but are there any ethical concerns? Can we adequately measure emotions and their representativeness or strengh through this medium? Can we manipulate it to our will?
I believe this Dilbert illustrates one of my concerns well: should research be done because it can be done, or are there other issues at stake? Is there a moral high ground in this discussion?
I couldn’t help but wonder, as the events in Egypt unfolded, what if someone were to gain enough information about each of us through our computers (websites visited, items purchased, videos searched for or watched on YouTube) to be able to activate our “hot buttons” to their own ends? What information should be sacred, if any? How would we choose to protect it?
Does entering the “world wide web” abdicate personal privacy through the act of accessing the web itself? Some might say, “Yes. Having access guarantees access by others to you.”
There are laws and practices in place in market research for “informed consent” and similar ethical standards that apply to performing research activities with humans. Does the same logic apply to what you can do with data they provide by accessing websites or social networking sites?
What about the images they see or access on the screen? We have all received emails and images that were later shown to be incorrect or false by Snopes.com and similar services. The only way to prevent history from repeating itself is to study history, to learn and listen to the past. “Remember the Maine” was the cry in the US in 1898. The sinking of the Battleship Maine (and the 266 American sailors lost) in Havana served as the catalyst for the Spanish-American War. It was later shown that it was somewhat dubious that the Spanish had anything to do with the sinking, but that was 13 years after the war. I am somewhat sensitive on this issue as I lost a great great uncle on board the Maine. Was he killed in an accident (likely) or an act of war?
So, what are we to do to avoid being misled or abused by researchers or marketers? To be sure, the Egyptians had many reasons to reject their leadership. The millions of Egyptians who accessed the information about demonstrations on Facebook felt empowered to act. What if they had been researched and empowered in a different way? What would be ethical to find out about them, if you wanted to do so? What should we be allowed to access as researchers and what should be protected? How would we guarantee protection?