Ipsos MORI and Demos call for better ethical standards in social media research in a new report published today, which finds just 38% of the public are aware their social media posts are potentially being analysed for research projects.
The findings from a new online survey show public awareness that information on social media can be mined for research is low compared to other uses of social media data such as; to target advertising which 57% are aware of, and to personalise the content they see on that network (54%).
The report #SocialEthics is the culmination of a year-long exploration of ethics in social media research and concludes with a series of recommendations to researchers, regulators and social media organisations on how they can raise awareness and improve ethical standards in this field.
Compounding this widespread lack of awareness is the fact that when asked, a majority (60%) say they don’t think social media companies should be sharing their data with third parties for research purposes. Under the terms and conditions of the major social networks, data can currently be used by third parties for any number of reasons, including analysis for research.
Public expectations about the privacy of their social media data aren’t being met by current practice, the findings suggest:
- A common sentiment expressed by participants in three focus groups undertaken for the report was that they feel to have “lost control” of the how their data is being used, and feel under-informed about the fact this is even happening.
- Nearly three quarters (74%) would prefer to remain anonymous if a social media post was selected to be published in a research report.
- Over half (54%) agree that all social media accounts have the right to anonymity in social media research, even if the account is held by a public institution, private company or high profile individual.
- Nearly a third (32%) still thought that social media companies should not disclose high level data, such as volume of posts on a particular subject, even if this information is not attributed to individuals.
Members of the public were also asked to review how likely they would be to approve a social media research project on a scale of 1-10. The average ‘approvability’ score for a project on a scale of 1-10 was just 5.02. Furthermore, 41% gave an average score of 4 or below, demonstrating that safeguards need to be put in place to introduce a broad-based trust in social media research.
The key factors which influence whether people think use of their social media data for research projects is acceptable include whether the social media data is already publicly available, how much anonymity is afforded within the research, and who commissioned it. It is clear that the methodological principles, concerning the way in which the research is conducted, are more important to members of the public than contextual factors such as why the project has been commissioned, and the topic of content to be explored.
The report makes a series of sensible, positive and practical recommendations on how research organisations and social media platforms can better safeguard social media users, including:
- Minimising the collection and analysis of unnecessary ‘meta-data’, such as location data or the username or @ handle, where this information is not necessary for the project.
- Publishing some details of ongoing social media projects online to allow social media users to see how their data is being used.
- Looking towards implementing an ‘opt-out’ system across social media research projects, where users can contact the research organisation to have their data withdrawn from future social media analysis.
- Developing tools to limit the collection of data from suspected under-16s.
- Reviewing whether there is a need to publish verbatim content; taking all steps possible to reduce the risk of harm to the participants where this is required, including seeking consent for publication where feasible and appropriate.
- Undertaking an internal ethics review at the inception of every social media research project.
Commenting on the report, Ipsos MORI’s head of digital research, Steven Ginnis, said,
“It’s clear that social media research is a fast-moving area and that in many places, practice lags behind the well-established ethical standards applied to traditional research, and people’s expectations of privacy. The recommendations we make today are primarily aimed at researchers, but we also call upon market research regulators and social media platforms to do their bit. We’re not expecting these to be put in to practice right away, but want to draw attention to the issues and start a discussion about how we as an industry can bring up standards across the board.”
Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, Jamie Bartlett, said,
“Social media research offers an exciting and important new way for researchers to study and understand society. But this report shows that the future success of this fast developing field will depend on research being conducted ethically and transparently – underpinned by broad public acceptance.”
- The report is the result of a year-long exploration of ethics in social media research, part of the Wisdom of the Crowd project, involving Ipsos MORI, Demos, University of Sussex and CASM Consulting LLP, which looks at the feasibility of large-scale aggregated research using social media data. The project is sponsored by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, with funding contributions from the TSB, the EPSRC and the ESRC. The #SocialEthics report represents the culmination of thinking for the ethics strand of this project, following the initial stages of a scoping report and interviews with experts.
- Further information about the project can be found here. The initial scoping report on the ethics of social media research can be found here
- The recommendations in the #SocialEthics report are aimed primarily at researchers under the regulation of the Market Research Society (MRS) and the Data Protection Act (DPA). Ipsos MORI in the UK will move towards adopting these recommendations in our practices, recognising that this change cannot happen overnight. The changes that Ipsos MORI is setting out will require trialling in order to ensure they are practicable and useful in ensuring an ethical best practice for social media research. Ipsos MORI also recognises that implementing these recommendations will be iterative, and that there may need to be changes in practice, not least because digital communications develop extremely quickly. It is not assumed that all researchers outside of research organisations such as Ipsos MORI will be able to adopt these recommendations wholesale, but we hope this report contributes to debates on this topic in related sectors.
- Demos recognises that social media research is developing rapidly, and this paper is an important step in understanding how it can be best conducted legally and ethically. They are therefore currently developing a code of conduct that draws on this report and makes it applicable for think-tank research.
- Results are based on an online quota survey of GB adults aged 16-75. The survey consisted of 1,250 interviews conducted between 7-13 August 2015.
Practical Ethics in Social Media Research: The greatest good for the greatest number?
The amount of social media data readily available to anyone inclined to look is staggering. This raises important questions about the principles around analysing individuals’ data. What can be done to ensure social media data research is as conscientious as it is revealing?