Research Computers at UMD Libraries, Digital Collections at the University of Maryland. Image available at:; used under a Creative Commons license.

Power, Visibility and Protecting the Odious: More Thoughts on Ethics and Social Media Research

In a recent blog post, I discussed the ethical problems faced by researchers who use online data. I argued that the visibility of data was often taken to imply that the material was public and therefore suitable for repurposing and analysis. But this attitude draws uncomfortable parallels between research and forms of online abuse, in that revenge porn users argue that women’s intimate photography is a public act. My PhD research — which addressed the disciplinary implications of ‘revenge porn’ and of the vigorous condemnation of selfies in the media — showed that this stance is particularly problematic, as it conceptualises women’s use of photography and social media as not just legitimising further circulation, but doing so on a premise of ‘punishment’, because the victim is perceived to have morally compromised themselves by being visible. This extreme example demonstrates that we cannot assume that ‘making oneself public’ is a straightforward act, or a concept in simple opposition to ‘keeping oneself private’. Visibility is a nuanced concept, in which people share certain things with certain audiences in a manner that is context- and time-specific. If we assume otherwise, we are entering problematic territory.

An example of how tricky this kind of research can be comes from Jon Ronson, who has just released a new book on the subject of social media shaming. When I went to see him talk on the subject, I realised that even very well-intentioned people such as Ronson — whose stance on online shaming constitutes a timely and laudable analysis of a growing problem — can make mistakes. Specifically, I found his extensive reproduction of tweets in his presentation, complete with username, problematic. After all, without anonymising the data he was showing us, wasn’t this just another form of shaming? His defence might be that these tweets he reproduced were from abusers, who forfeited their right to anonymity when they started behaving so reprehensibly. But when I was handling similar types of material in my own research, the ethics committee of my university ensured that I protected the identities of abusers as well as victims. After all, in order to criticise the simplistic and destructive conceptualisation of others’ materials as universally public, I needed to avoid engaging in the same kind of behaviour myself.

Furthermore, making these kinds of decisions about who has earned the ‘right’ to anonymity reflects our standpoint not just as ethical individuals, but as academics, in which re-appropriating online material without due care underscores a problematic power dynamic between researchers and their subjects of interest. I would argue that the technological affordances of the Internet have enabled access to data to advance far ahead of society’s capacity to adopt suitable conceptual frameworks for dealing with such unprecedented insight into the thoughts and lives of others. Involuntary pornography and data piracy both constitute forms of what Miekle calls ‘dark sharing’, that are either illegal, immoral or both (Miekle, 2014). Both reflect a sense of entitlement, entailed through possessing the right skills and knowledge to access the data — or in the case of involuntary pornography, the very women — the user desires. Obtaining and using others’ data can therefore constitute an expression of dominance and control, in which the viewer positions themselves as an entitled consumer, who has the right to get what they want. We must be careful not to reproduce such patterns and dynamics ourselves.

I should clarify that I am not suggesting that we treat all online material as private and off-limits — rather, I am suggesting that we ask more questions than ‘can I see it?’ when we come to assess material. We should consider seeking permission, and most importantly, assess whether it is necessary, or even ethical, to reproduce the subject’s name. After all, in this sweet shop-like context of abundant online data, it can be easy to assume that we can reproduce anything so long as it’s ‘already public’. But protecting our subjects must be our main priority when conducting social media research, and this requires us to continually interrogate what ‘public’ really means and, crucially, what it justifies.

Cited texts:

Miekle, G. (2014) ‘Sharing and Social Media’, lecture given at the University of Westminster, 26th February 2014.

Ronson, J. (2015) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. London: Picador. Available at:

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.

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