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How should I use social media as a research source?

By Ruth Wainman, on 11 December 2018

The rapid growth of social media has inevitably led to a wealth of data into all aspects of our everyday lives. At the same time, this has been accompanied by concerns about how we use data harvested from social media sources. There is already a growing literature out there on the ethical implications of using social media and so this FAQ will aim to briefly summarise some of key arguments that researchers will need to consider.

The Data Itself

Perhaps the most important issue to consider when using social media data is whether the data itself can be considered public or private. This is a tricky issue as one could argue that posting data to a public source – the internet – already makes that data public. However, there are many closed spaces on the internet including forums which require authorised access from an administrator. Furthermore, there is the issue of the terms and conditions under which people originally signed up to in order to use certain social media platforms. Such terms may also affect how researchers can use social media data in their research.

Using Social Media Data

Another major issue lies in the type of data that social media produces. An all too common view of social media is that it provides a distorted lens of reality. People can assume different personas, make themselves anonymous and even act impulsively. This is not to say that this doesn’t happen offline but social media has arguably helped to facilitate these aspects of our personalities. The sheer ambiguity of social media data therefore has a direct impact on how we should understand the ethical implications of using it in research. The biggest issue for any researcher is obtaining informed consent from participants. The anonymity, lack of context and sensitive content of some social media posts makes this issue particularly pertinent. Researchers will also need to take care in negotiating an online setting in terms of how they deal with these issues on a personal level. At present, UCL only offers some guidelines related to using web 2.0 for teaching and learning.

Our Duties as Researchers of Social Media

The multiplicity of social media data and the difficulties of anonymising a source that is also being harvested and stored by media companies for long periods of time place additional responsibilities on researchers.  Anonymising data is generally considered more complex when working with social media. This concerns the difficulties of anonymising individual social media posts to the external sharing of information by social media companies. As researchers, we want to ensure that we protect the identity of our participants especially when dealing with a sensitive subject matter. The added issue of anonymity also makes it difficult to verify the ages of some social media users. Therefore additional steps will need to be taken in order to ensure that participants are over the age of 18.

Further Reading