On the ethics of researching social media spaces…

I’ve been a bit sporadic in updating this blog of late and I thought that as my family were away this weekend I would make an effort to get back on the horse and write something, briefly, about my thoughts this week.

I’ve previously written about the role of research ethics committees in clinical research and this week I’ve been thinking a little about the ethics of research again, this time particularly in relation to researching the use of social media websites such as twitter.com.

As a side project to my PhD I’ve been working on looking at how those who identify as ‘mental health service users’ make use of social media as a means of communication. I’ve also been meeting with a computer science lecturer in Manchester to discuss supervising some final year computer science students in a project they are completing looking at social media use in relation to the expression of emotion or discussion of diagnostic terms, such as schizophrenia. Finally I attended a seminar this week in which some research findings were presented relating to a project assessing how Twitter had been used to describe people’s thoughts in relation to the proposed sharing of NHS data through the care.data project, which was shelved for further consultation in February.

The upshot of all these projects, meetings and seminars has been to get me thinking about the ethics of researching social media usage and how we respect the rights of social media users as potential research participants.

Obviously when someone is invited to take part in a research project they need to be provided with information relating to the potential benefits and harms of the project, such that they can make an informed choice as to whether they wish to consent to take part. But social media research can target absolutely huge numbers of potential participants, and it is possible for their information to be handled anonymously by the research team – so if consent from every individual necessary for a project to continue?

One argument that I have heard made in the past, and was repeated at the seminar I attended this week, is that by agreeing to the terms and conditions of a social media website then publicly broadcasting material, for example as a tweet, you are implicitly consenting for that information to be stored and potentially used for other purposes. What those purposes are is irrelevant – if you publicly broadcast material then you must be fully accountable for its content.

I have a couple of problems with this line or argument.

Consent

This argument to me implies that by agreeing to, for example twitter’s, terms and conditions you are fully consenting to the gathering of your information and its potential analysis by other parties. For example when you sign up for a Gmail account through Google you are agreeing that the contents of your e-mails will be scanned by Google – this allows google to sell your information to other companies. Similarly for example if I search Google maps for a coffee shop then Google is able to sell that information to, for example, Starbucks who can then target me for coffee related advertising. Now the fact that I drink coffee is neither something I would wish to keep secret or something that I particularly mind being targeted for the marketing of so this is a small sacrifice in privacy for the convenience of using Google’s services for me. But what if I wrote something personally revealing in this blog? This blog is hosted by a private company who provide me with a limited amount of webspace for free. They gain by having access to the content of my blogs, that can again be used to target marketing etc at me. Now there are some things that I might say in this blog if I were unguarded that I would not want a private company to have access to – it is possible therefore that I may sacrifice a larger amount of my privacy then I am happy with.

So to return to the argument of consent and the publication of private information through social media. If you wish to use Google services, or Twitter or Facebook for example you have to sign up to the terms and conditions that they outline. If you don’t do this you can’t use the service. So are you not being coerced into signing the agreement? Also how often do people read the entirety of the terms and conditions? In fact the first time I read all the Twitter terms and conditions was when I wanted to begin doing a research project using Twitter, to make sure that I wasn’t leaving myself libel to legal action by breaching said conditions. But before that my logic had been – I wish to use Twitter, I have no choice but to agree to these conditions if I wish to use Twitter, therefore as I will be careful what I use Twitter for I have no reason to fully read these conditions. Somewhat naive perhaps, but I doubt unique to me.

Relating to research again then – if people are, like me, agreeing to use Twitter and its ilk without fully accepting terms and conditions then how consciously aware are they that their material is being stored and potentially monitored? Is this then truly informed consent to participate in potential research projects targeting social media use?

Interpretation

The material I have obtained for my Twitter project relates to a discrete conversation that took place and is therefore fairly limited in volume. The brevity of communication in 140 characters limits the analysis to little more than a content description. However not all social research is this limited and it is not uncommon for researchers to make interpretations relating to what participants are saying – this is exactly what I am doing in my PhD project where I attempt to infer some greater knowledge of the participant then is immediately apparent from a simple re-production of their speech. To me this interpretative approach raises the invasiveness of research beyond a simple repetition of stated views. Even within my simple project I am attempting to cluster the material I have captured into descriptive themes – this involves a limited degree of interpretation and what if a Twitter user, whose material I am clustering, disagrees with my interpretation or the argument I synthesise? This is obviously a risk in all research but normally I would expect to gain consent from the participant in order to involve them in my research.

Conclusions

I think that the use of social media as a space for discussion and sharing of knowledge is a fascinating area for future research. To me this is a space for interaction that is rapidly increasing in terms of its scope and reach and is liable to have a great impact on our daily lives in the future, if it doesn’t already.

In the post Wiki leaks and post-Snowden era I do not think we can remain naive to the fact that much of our digital communication is being monitored. I do not believe that as a society we have fully recognised the implications of this however and therefore as a researcher I believe that I have an obligation to treat potential research participants and broadcast material with respect and caution. This to me is why I approached a research ethics committee to discuss the project, risking what, as one colleague I discussed this with called, the ever extending remit of the research ethics committee and the accompanying risk of stifling the research process.

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4 thoughts on “On the ethics of researching social media spaces…

  1. I don’t know. If your research only involves describing people’s behaviour in their natural surroundings (ie. no deception or invasions of privacy) I don’t think you have too much of a problem. You are merely reporting what happened, not using people for your own nefarious purposes. Further, people who don’t want their information researched can merely delete their tweets. The terms of services don’t really come into it except in terms of the relationships between the user and the service.

    My approach is to avoid trying to identify particular individuals unless they are celebrities, politicians or organizations but unless there is a real invasion of privacy, libel or other obviously illegal forms of speech, I don’t see how ethics committees are going to be too worried about it. In fact, it is not really that much different from quoting evidence from a court trial or quoting someone’s blog (with citation of course).

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I believe that overall this type of research is acceptable, and have completed a project with ethics approval. I think that it becomes interesting though when you begin to research specific groups, who may be considered vulnerable e.g. mental health service users.

      Also we have evidence from the response to the Samaritans’ Radar app that this is an area where privacy needs to be fully respected and managed with caution.

      Finally it’s all very topical at the moment isn’t it? With the balance between surveillance / security very much in our National Press. I know that I certainly have concerns about the way that debate is progressing.

  2. Definitely work with the vulnerable is always a time to get ethics involved. As someone who conducts social network analyses, I think there could be a question about setting someone in a social context that perhaps they were not even aware of (eg. if someone connected with members of a hate group to discuss recipes etc.). That’s why I try to avoid disclosing account names unless they hold some public purpose.

  3. Pingback: Social media use and expressions of mental distress | shrinking thoughts

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