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Social Media Research: Privacy, Consent, and an invitation to participate in a ground-breaking research study

Web Foundation · June 26, 2015

This is a guest post from Dr Ansgar Koene. It looks at the complex issues being created as a result of the increasing prevalence of research being conducted on social media channels. Dr Koene is a Senior Research Fellow at Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham, UK, working on the ESRC funded Citizen-centric approaches to Social Media analysis (CaSMa) project.

As part of the “Conditions for Consent to analyze Social Media data” project within CaSMa, we have recently launched a survey to ask for your views about the type of information you would want to have before participating in social media research.

Willing consent from all parties involved in a transaction is generally accepted to be a cornerstone in the foundation of ethical behaviour, no matter if the interaction is of a personal (e.g. sex), professional (e.g. participation as research subject) or public (e.g. being quoted in the media) nature¹. And yet, when dealing with research, or any other interactions online, the mere facts that the interaction is mediated by machines appears to blur this fundamental concept in people’s minds.

The seemingly endless procession of controversies like the Facebook news-feed manipulation experiment, the Samsung Smart TV ‘Telescreen’ debacle, the Samaritans Radar turmoil, etc. appear to suggest that properly informed consent may well be one of the most violated principles online. This impression was further reinforced by the findings of the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Responsible Use of Data which strongly criticized the Terms & Conditions of websites and apps as being too difficult to understand, expressed concerns about the amount of personal data that is being collected, which often does not appear to be necessary for an app or service to function, and generally called for greater transparency towards users.

Unfortunately, due to the relative youth of the internet and the speed of new developments, both the legal and ethical codes of conduct are struggling to keep up with the technology.

Even within the academic community, where the need for ethically sound research practices is fully endorsed, there is confusion regarding the type and level of informed consent that is required for various types of internet mediated research. Is explicit consent required when using publicly accessible data (e.g. public tweets)? What determines the publicness of communications on a social media platform, is it the policy of the platform provider or is it the way in which people are using the platform? If explicit consent is sought from participants, how and when should this be done? At the time when the data is accessed, when it analysed or just before the results are published? How might the consent process affect the balance in the obtained data set, e.g. people with more ‘socially accepted’ views and behaviours might be more willing to give access to their data than others?

These are all important and valid questions which are being discussed. Unfortunately much of these discussions tend to veer towards theoretical considerations based on hypotheses about the interests and concerns that citizens might have. Ironically, the very discussions that are meant to reinforce respect for internet citizens appear to treat them as abstract variables rather than individuals that have a voice of their own. The goal of our survey therefore is to include the public in forming a clearer picture of the kinds of conditions that they would like to have met in order to consent to having their data used for research purposes.

Please follow the link to our survey and give us your views.

¹ Yes there are exceptional cases where ‘the benefit to the public good’ may outweigh the ’needs of the few, or the one’, but the needs for this must be clearly shown. Obtaining of willing informed consent is considered the default requirement.

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