It is widely recognised that research involving human subjects should be given extra care. However the line seems muddled when it comes to research on social media posts. On the one hand, the posts are publicly available information. But on the other hand, individuals are behind these posts and social media research often requires deep qualitative investigation. Two scholars from the University of Colorado Boulder, Melissa Bica and Jennings Anderson, looked into the ethical issues around social media research with Twitter as an example.
Despite Twitter’s terms of service making clear no expectation of privacy is afforded once a tweet is published, their ethical inquiry involved a more delicate approach.
On whether informed consent should be obtained before using social media posts, they made a distinction between using the text at face value or performing a deeper interpretation to infer implicit meaning. For the latter form of use, consent is suggested to be obtained. Another determining factor should be the amount of information used.
The rationale of the distinction is that when a more substantial amount of data is used and interpretation of the posts according to the context of the users’ other posts and profiles is conducted, the degree of investigation of the data is likely beyond the authors’ original expectation. The posts are no longer taken at face value, but are used to compose a deeper story, which justifies a different ethical standard.
Practical advise was given on how to best obtain informed consent. Researchers should carefully draft a message explaining the purpose of the research and what inclusion of their data means to the analysis. The message should detail what exactly is the information used for and language of informed consent should be adopted. If the authors do not consent to the exposure of social media identity, an anonymisation option should be open to them.
Bica, M., & Anderson, J. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2016, from https://ethicalencountershci.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/bica-and-anderson.pdf