Social Media Ethics in Research

Social media research ethics

A few months ago, Kristy discussed the acceptability of social media as a knowledge translation tool. We learned that health researchers increasingly use platforms like Twitter to share their research. But what happens when you want to use social media as a place to actually gather the data for your research? In these relatively uncharted waters, what does this mean for ethical research?

A group at the University of Aberdeen sought to answer these questions through a project looking at social media, privacy and risk. This work resulted in a 2016 document titled “Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics.” This post looks at the key issues raised in this document, as well as its framework for social media ethics.

Increasingly, the public uses social media to share attitudes and behaviours on a wide variety of topics. It offers a wealth of information for researchers, all available at the click of a button. The data is rich, plentiful and naturally occurring. However, using this data raises important ethical concerns including:

  1. Private versus Public — is information taken from social media public or private? All subscribed users of a social media tool (such as Twitter or Facebook) agree to a set of terms and conditions outlining how a third party can access their information. But is this enough to justify the use of this data for research? Should context and expectations be considered (e.g. a private Facebook group versus a public tweet)?
  2. Informed Consent — this is one of the most basic and fundamental concepts of traditional research. Yet how is it defined in the social media world? In many cases, social media users aren’t even aware when their data is accessed. Do the terms and conditions of a social media platform equal informed consent?
  3. Anonymity — making social media data anonymous is a complicated process. It becomes even more important when the data relates to a sensitive topic or involves vulnerable people.
  4. Risk of Harm — a researcher’s responsibility to their participant increases with any increase in risk to those participants. When a social media user’s privacy or anonymity are threatened, the potential for harm goes up.

Social Media Ethics Framework

The following framework aims to guide and support decisions in social media research. More detailed explanations of the framework are available in the full document. The creators of the framework stress that conversations about social media ethics should be dynamic and need to involve Institutional Review Boards. The world of social media is constantly changing as technologies and platforms advance but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the researcher to ensure that they are acting ethically when working in this realm.

ethical-framework

Time to weigh in

Do you have questions about social media ethics in research? Tips or thoughts to share? Tweet us @KnowledgeNudge or comment below.


About the Author

Carly Leggett is the Knowledge Translation Practice Lead with the George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation and the Knowledge Broker for Translating Emergency Knowledge for Kids (TREKK), a national knowledge mobilization network for pediatric emergency medicine.

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