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Users’ Views of Ethics in Social Media Research: Informed Consent, Anonymity, and Harm

The Ethics of Online Research

ISBN: 978-1-78714-486-6, eISBN: 978-1-78714-485-9

Publication date: 12 December 2017


Some researchers consider most social media communications as public, and posts from networks such as Twitter are routinely harvested and published without anonymization and without direct consent from users. In this chapter, we argue that researchers must move beyond the permissions granted by ‘legal’ accounts of the use of these new forms of data (e.g., Terms and Conditions) to a more nuanced and reflexive ethical approach that puts user expectations, safety, and privacy rights center stage. Through two projects, we present qualitative and quantitative data that illustrate social media users’ views on the use of their data by researchers. Over four in five report expecting to be asked for their consent and nine in ten expect anonymity ahead of publication of their Twitter posts. Given the unique nature of this online public environment and what we know about users’ views pertaining to informed consent, anonymity, and harm, we conclude researchers seeking to embark on social media research should conduct a risk assessment to determine likely privacy infringement and potential user harm from publishing user content.



Williams, M.L., Burnap, P., Sloan, L., Jessop, C. and Lepps, H. (2017), "Users’ Views of Ethics in Social Media Research: Informed Consent, Anonymity, and Harm", Woodfield, K. (Ed.) The Ethics of Online Research (Advances in Research Ethics and Integrity, Vol. 2), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 27-52.



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