At the beginning of October 2013, there were reportedly 1.26 billion Facebook users worldwide. The number of Tweets sent per day is over 500 million. That’s a lot of communication happening every day! Importantly for researchers, it’s also being recorded, and because social media websites offer rich, naturally-occurring data, it’s no wonder researchers are increasingly turning to such websites to observe human behaviour, recruit participants, and interview online.
As technology constantly evolves, researchers must re-think their ethical practices. Existing guidelines could be adapted ad-hoc, but wouldn’t it be better to rethink the guidelines for this new paradigm? And what do social media users think about research that utilises social media? The work of the “New Social Media, New Social Science?” network in reviewing existing studies suggests that these questions have not yet been adequately answered.
In response, a group of NatCen researchers are soon to report data from a recent study on how social media users feel about their posts being used in research, and offer recommendations about how to approach ethical issues.
What do participants want?
A key ethical issue participants talked about was consent: participants wanted researchers to ask them before using their posts and information. Although it was acknowledged that “scraping” a large number of Tweets would pose practical problems for the researcher trying to gain consent, users would still like to be asked. Consent was seen as particularly important when the post contained sensitive or personal information (including photographs that pictured the user). An alternative view was that social media users shouldn’t expect researchers to gain consent because, by posting online, you automatically waive your right to ownership.
Participants’ views about consent were affected by other factors, including the platform being used. Twitter, for example, was seen as more public than Facebook so researchers wouldn’t necessarily need to ask for the user’s permission to incorporate a Tweet in a report.
Views about anonymity were less varied. Users felt anonymity should be afforded to all, especially if posts had been taken without consent. Users wanted to remain anonymous so that their posts wouldn’t be negatively judged, or because they were protecting identities they had developed in other contexts, such as at work.
Our participants were also concerned about the quality of information posted on social media. There was confusion about why researchers would want to use social media posts because participants felt that people didn’t always present a true reflection of themselves or their views. Participants noted, for example, how users post pictures of themselves drinking alcohol (which omits any mention of them having jobs or other, more serious things!), and that ”people either have more bravado, and ‘acting up’ which doesn’t reflect their real world self”. They expressed concern over this partial ‘self’ that can be presented on social media.
What does it mean?
Later this year, NatCen will publish a full report of our findings, so stay tuned! If you can’t wait, here’s a preview:
- Consider that users’ posts and profiles may not be a reflection of their offline personality but an online creation or redefinition;
- Even if users are not utilizing privacy settings they still might expect you to ask permission to use their post(s);
- Afford anonymity. Even if someone has let you know you can quote their username, you should learn how ‘traceable’ this is and let the user know (i.e. can you type their username into Google and be presented with a number of their social media profiles?). It’s our responsibility as researchers that the consent we get is informed consent.
Let us know at NatCen if you would like to receive an electronic copy of the report, or if you have any questions about the study.