Did Obama Order ‘Behavior Experiments’ on Americans?

A 2015 executive order from then-United States President Barack Obama was quickly churned into disinformation by fringe blogs painting it as evidence of illicit “experimentation” on unsuspecting Americans.

The order, released in September of that year, did not explicitly order any studies or “experiments.” Instead it called on federal agencies to identify “policies, programs, and operations” where behavioral science could be used in their operations. The order reads in part:

To more fully realize the benefits of behavioral insights and deliver better results at a lower cost for the American people, the Federal Government should design its policies and programs to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use, and respond to those policies and programs. By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities, including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The order was a follow-up to the Obama administration’s creation of a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) working under the umbrella of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

One program involving U.S. military servicemembers demonstrated how this program was less about “experimentation” and more about practical help:

In one recent pilot, SBST collaborated with the Department of Defense (DOD) to help members of the Armed Forces continue contributions to their Roth Thrift Savings Plans. Due to a change in the military pay system in January 2015, nearly 140,000 members needed to re-enroll in their plans online, or else their contributions would be suspended indefinitely. SBST worked with DOD to redesign their planned communications to better serve our service members, by making the language clear and concise, charting out clear action steps for service members to take, and personalizing the emails.

According to officials, the program helped 3,770 servicemembers re-enroll in their saving plans and ultimately prompted the Department of Defense to update their messages for servicemembers across the board to be more clear.

That did not stop the right-wing Daily Caller from publishing a post pushing the program as “experimentation.” As of March 2022, subsidiary of that blog is listed as a participant in a “fact-checking” partnership offered by the social media platform Facebook. It was allegedly included at the urging of Joel Kaplan, a company executive with a right-wing political background.

From there, the claim was picked up by blogs who regurgitated it with more hyperbolic writing:

Hold on to your hats Mr. and Ms. America. The “hope and change” wind is blowing into a hurricane using the infamous “pen and phone.” Those who are awake know our federal government conducts “social” experiments in certain venues to gauge the public reaction. While it has been seen on a somewhat limited scale (think the military, door to door extractions of individuals from their homes during the Boston bombing, etc.), “Heil Obama” announced an executive fiat on Tuesday authorizing federal agencies “to conduct behavioral experiments on US citizens in order to advance government initiatives.”

As so often happens, the claim was further pushed on social media:

But as so often also happens, no tangible evidence of “experimentation” came to light.

“SBST has been exemplary in how they have made research integrity a major priority,” said Mary Ann Bates, a researcher for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are committed to building A/B testing and random assignment into their studies. When appropriate, this can be a very valuable tool for understanding which approaches work and why. They have also highlighted the studies that didn’t work, too. That’s a refreshingly transparent approach for both academia and government. And they have mastered the art of tapping into external resources and collaborating across agencies.”

Following Obama’s departure from office and the election of Republican Donald Trump, however, the SBST project was discontinued. Its work remains archived online.

Update 3/29/2022, 10:47am: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag