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LinkedIn Ran Social Experiments on 20 Million Users Over Five Years

  • September 25, 2022

LinkedIn, which is owned by Microsoft, did not directly answer a question about how the company had considered the potential long-term consequences of its experiments on users’ employment and economic status. But the company said the research had not disproportionately advantaged some users.

The goal of the research was to “help people at scale,” said Karthik Rajkumar, an applied research scientist at LinkedIn who was one of the study’s co-authors. “No one was put at a disadvantage to find a job.”

Sinan Aral, a management and data science professor at M.I.T. who was the lead author of the study, said LinkedIn’s experiments were an effort to ensure that users had equal access to employment opportunities.

“To do an experiment on 20 million people and to then roll out a better algorithm for everyone’s jobs prospects as a result of the knowledge that you learn from that is what they are trying to do,” Professor Aral said, “rather than anointing some people to have social mobility and others to not.” (Professor Aral has conducted data analysis for The New York Times, and he received a research fellowship grant from Microsoft in 2010.)

Experiments on users by big internet companies have a checkered history. Eight years ago, a Facebook study describing how the social network had quietly manipulated what posts appeared in users’ News Feeds in order to analyze the spread of negative and positive emotions on its platform was published. The weeklong experiment, conducted on 689,003 users, quickly generated a backlash.

The Facebook study, whose authors included a researcher at the company and a professor at Cornell, contended that people had implicitly consented to the emotion manipulation experiment when they had signed up for Facebook. “All users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook,” the study said, “constituting informed consent for this research.”

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