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Editorial Snapshot: Does Facebook have a positive role to play in the advancement of science?

– K.R., Editor

Earlier in 2018, public support for big tech companies seemed to have weathered the recent storm of scandals that plagued the industry. Since then, however, perceptions have shifted and Facebook in particular has become increasingly vilified over the past 6 months. Although key to this distaste are issues surrounding privacy and trust, questions are also being raised about the utility of Facebook as a medium versus the irreparable harm it can do to political discourse and even scientific study.

In November, a report in Nature described how Facebook can adversely affect the work of clinical trial researchers. Participants in clinical trials are increasingly able to discover and connect with each other online, with participants using this opportunity to determine whether they are being administered medication or a placebo. The impact of online discussions can also lead to participants discussing the potential side effects of a drug, gaming the system to receive a promising treatment, and even withdrawing from a trial entirely. One researcher has even remarked that it is “only a matter of time before Facebook jeopardizes the scientific integrity of a study.”

As many will point out, however, moves to stop increased connectivity in the digital age would be akin to putting a genie back into the bottle. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that Facebook has a positive role to play in the future of science. Increased profiling facilitated through troves of online data has enabled the rapid identification of potential clinical trial recruits. In an age where increased attention is being focused on particularly rare diseases and where personalized medicine has dramatically sharpened the crosshairs for possible therapies, the search for potential trial candidates has become more refined. Compounding the issue is a record low level in trial recruitment due to reluctance among participants to enroll in long trials with grueling regimens and the potential for serious side effects.

Although Facebook deservedly bears criticism for fallout from its “move fast and break things” approach, it must also be conceded that there is untapped potential for good in the largest repository of personal data that the world has ever known. However, the potential benefits must be accompanied by caveats regarding privacy, trust, and the responsibility that it owes its users and society at large.

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