Using social media for academic research is throwing up awkward ethical issues for social scientists, a conference has heard.
With huge amounts of personal information posted on Twitter, Facebook and other sites each day, social media platforms may seem like a treasure trove of potential data for researchers, the Academy of Social Sciences event, titled “Social Media & Social Science Research Ethics”, on 21 March, was told.
But researchers wishing to use these popular sites as data sources must negotiate a difficult set of new ethical considerations not previously encountered by academia, many scholars explained.
“It’s very hard to fit these kinds of problems into the traditional ethics boxes,” said Jenna Condie, lecturer in digital research and online social analysis at Western Sydney University, who is investigating how the dating app Tinder has changed how tourists travel when visiting Australia.
Dr Condie told the event in London how she and her research collaborators had managed to interview “Tinder tourists” in Sydney by signing up to the app.
However, despite explaining the nature of their approach, many Tinder users may have had something different in mind when they responded to interview requests, Dr Condie said.
“I am so ready to be used for academic purposes” was one message received by a researcher, she said, adding that this type of interaction raised “issues around personal and professional boundaries”.
“You also have to log in through your Facebook account, allowing access to pictures, so there are issues around that,” Dr Condie added.
Tinder’s terms of service, which bar any sort of data mining, are also a potential problem, she explained.
However, Condie, who is leading the project alongside Garth Lean, lecturer in geography and urban studies at Western Sydney, believed the scraping and interpretation of accessible material by academics would be allowed by Tinder as this activity was not commercially driven, she said.
The use of Twitter within research was another issue debated at the conference, which heard how some academics regarded the incorporation of user names and tweets in papers as “fair game”.
One sociology professor felt material posted online could be used in publications without consent as such tweets were “no different to if you had written a letter to a newspaper”, said Susan Halford, director of the University of Southampton’s Web Science Institute.
But several research projects at Southampton instead decided to use tweets “only in anonymised form”, she added.
That came despite concerns that “irreversible anonymisation is nigh on impossible” given that emerging new web tools may make recognition possible, she added.
“I want to use screenshots in my research, PhD and possibly in publications,” said Ms Mooney.
However, this would mean obtaining consent from anyone featuring in a post – either in pictures, the main body or comments – before using the information, she said.