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Are A/B Tests Ethical?

Hal Conick

A/B testing may seem harmless, but many consumers don’t like how easily companies can test them without their knowledge. Should marketers change how they test?

What ethical questions could a simple A/B test raise? What could be wrong with testing how people react to two different campaigns or website colors?  

Michelle Meyer would tell you: not much. She’s an assistant professor and associate director of research ethics at Geisinger’s Center for Translational Bioethics & Health Care Policy and says that she doesn’t see the bounds of A/B testing so differently from the bounds of business ethics. “Selling? Yes. Upselling? Hmm. Advertising? Yes. False advertising? No,” she says. 

But as the amount of data online grows, the line between research and business gets thinner. Companies can now A/B test large groups of consumers, and social media platforms can test even larger numbers of users. Large corporations, including Google, Amazon and Netflix, undertake many A/B tests every day, unknown and unseen by the users being tested. This is unsettling to some; many consumers have loudly—sometimes angrily—spoken out when they realized that they were part of A/B tests undertaken by companies that wield large pools of data. In March 2014, Facebook tested about 700,000 of its users without telling them. The social platform gave some users a positive newsfeed and others a negative newsfeed, publishing the results of its study in collaboration with researchers from Cornell University in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The resulting paper, titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” found that users with negative newsfeeds posted more negative words, and those with positive newsfeeds posted more positive words. Many users decried Facebook’s use of “human experimentation.” The chorus of complaints grew so loud that Adam D.I. Kramer, one of the Facebook researchers who worked on the study, apologized.

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Hal Conick

Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.