Skip to main content
Search form
  • 00:00

    [MUSIC PLAYING][Social Media Research & Ethics]

  • 00:10

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND: So my name is Leanne Townsend,and I work in the sociology department at the Universityof Aberdeen. [Dr. Leanne Townsend, Honorary ResearchFellow, University of Aberdeen] My research interest, broadlyspeaking, is within digital sociology.And over the last couple of years,I've been working on research looking at the ethics of usingsocial media data in research.[An Introduction to Social Media & Research Ethics]In our project, we were interested in lookingat the ethics of using social media data in research.

  • 00:39

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So, over the last 10 or so years,social media platforms have reallyexploded in terms of the number of platformsthere are, but also in terms of how many peopleare using those platforms.And this presents a really valuable opportunityfor researchers to access potentially very large datasets of very rich, naturally occurring data.

  • 00:59

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And over the last few years, researchershave really started to take advantage of this opportunity.So this is potentially very fantastic,but it presents also some really interesting questionsaround the ethics of how we go about using that data.So traditionally, our research hasfollowed a sort of set framework of ethics,looking at things like informed consent and anonymity.

  • 01:23

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: But it's very hard sometimes to apply those traditional ethicsto social media contexts.[Why do researchers need ethical guidance when using socialmedia data?]So because this is a fairly new researchcontext for researchers to work in, a relatively new field,we need to really produce some new ethical guidancefor those researches.

  • 01:47

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And because this is quite a new field,there isn't really a clear ethical frameworkfor researchers to follow as yet.Some guidance has been produced over the past decade or solooking at the ethics of using internet data morebroadly, such as forum data and things like that,but some of this guidance is a bit outdated now,and not very applicable to current social media contexts.

  • 02:13

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: [What are the key areas of concern within social mediaresearch?]So there's a number of key concernsthat come up when we think about the ethics of usingsocial media data in our research.And the first of these is whether or notwe can consider this data to be public or private.So within this debate, some peopleargue that the data is public because the usersof the social media platforms have postedthis data in public spaces.

  • 02:38

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And in some cases, depending upon the platform,they've often agreed to a set of terms and conditionsstating that their data will be used by third parties,including researchers.But I think many of us know that people don't alwaysread the terms and conditions.So other people would argue that whether or notthe data is public or private really very much dependsupon the context of the data.

  • 03:00

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So for example, posting somethingin an open debate or discussion taking place on Twittercan be considered more in the public realm, whereas peoplethat are posting within, say, a private or closed Facebookgroup, where you might have to either become a memberor have a password, that data might be considered moreas private data.

  • 03:24

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And questions around whether we considerthe data public or private reallyinform the approach that we then take to whether or notwe have to seek informed consent from the usersof the social media platforms.So the next key concern within the ethicsof using social media data and researchis acquiring informed consent.Now, with more traditional research methodologies,often seeking informed consent isbuilt into the design of the research itself.

  • 03:52

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: But when we access data sets from social media platforms,in many, or even in most cases, the users of those platformsdon't know.They're not aware that their data is beingused by us as researchers.So informed consent isn't present at that stage.Now, whether or not we need to seekinformed consent might depend more or lessupon certain situations.

  • 04:15

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So, are we working with data thatcould be considered private.As I mentioned previously, if there'san expectation on the part of the social media userthat what they wrote, what they put into that platformwould be within a certain group, thenit's important that we seek consent from that userbefore we reuse their data.

  • 04:35

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: It's also important to consider whether or not we'reworking with sensitive data.For example, are the users talkingabout things that might bring risk to themif that data is exposed into new contexts or to new audiences.So for example, are people talkingabout illegal activities, are theytalking about their financial status,or their marital status, or anything thatmight be potentially sensitive.

  • 05:01

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: If so, it might be important that we seek consentbefore we reuse their data.But obviously, this is quite difficultwhen we're working with very, very large data sets,so we also have to consider how we're using the data.Are we just aggregating the data together and analyzing itand presenting statistical results, for example,or are we wanting to cite individual tweets,individual units of data.

  • 05:26

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So those are the kinds of things to consider.Another important area is whether wethink that we're working with children or people whoare considered to be vulnerable adults, in which case, again,we have to consider this issue more seriously.So, anonymity is another critical factorof the ethics of social media research,and indeed of all research that we carry out.

  • 05:49

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And this is something that is, again, perhaps more problematicwith social media research than itis with more traditional forms of data collection.Again, anonymising participants is often built into the waythat we deal with data in more traditional research,but it becomes more difficult with social media data.

  • 06:10

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So it might be that we don't give the name of the personwhen we reuse their data in papers, in conferencepresentations, and so on.But if we use the unit of data thatwas presented on the platform in its original wording,quite often that can be used to trace backto the owner of that social media data,or that person's profile.

  • 06:33

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So for example, if you present a tweet wordfor word in its original format, then somebodymight be able to type that into Google,and it would take you straight to the profile of that Twitteruser.So you can see that anonymity becomesproblematic with social media research.So, in terms of how we go about doing that,we also have to pay attention to the terms and conditionsof the platform that we're actually accessing the datafrom, because all of these platformshave different sets of terms and conditions.

  • 07:04

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And they change them regularly, as well.So you have to keep on top of those changes.So for example, some platforms stipulatethat you can't reword units of dataif you're going to use them in your outputs,and that you have to use them word for word, which makes iteven more difficult for us to protectthe anonymity of those users.

  • 07:25

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Protecting anonymity of users, then,might be more important, again, going back to whether or notthat user had an expectation of privacyin the situation that they were posting in,and, again, going back to whether or notthis data can be considered sensitive,whether it maybe places them under any risk of harmwhen exposing this data in a new context.

  • 07:47

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And again, whether we're potentially workingwith the data that was created by childrenor vulnerable adults.So, as researchers, we have a responsibilityto make sure that, when we're using the data of social mediausers in our research, that we do not place those peopleunder any risk of harm.And in order to make sure that we are protectingour participants from this risk of harm,we have to think about the nature of the data itselfand the context which we took the data from.

  • 08:17

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So this means that we have to revisit the other concerns.We have to think about whether or notthe data was considered private or public by the people whoposted it originally.We have to think about whether the data mighthave been produced by children or peoplethat we might consider to be vulnerable, or perhapsnot of sound mind.

  • 08:37

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And perhaps more importantly, we haveto consider whether the data is sensitive.So if the data might expose the social mediauser to embarrassment, or even prosecution, or the potentialfor them to lose their job, or for damageto their relationships, then in those situationswe have to think about how we go about protecting themfrom that.

  • 09:02

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Do we have to seek consent, be careful about making surethat the data is anonymised, or perhapsin some more extreme cases considernot using that data at all in our research.And these concerns also will be dictated to some degreedepending upon how we wish to use the data.So if we're just analyzing the databut not reporting that data back in our outputs word for word,perhaps that's less risky.

  • 09:31

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: But if we want to provide quotes and cite the datain its original format, then that potentiallyis more risky for our participants.[A Framework For Ethical ResearchWith Social Media Data]So in light of the concerns that I'veintroduced in terms of social media data,we as researchers at the University of Aberdeenwere tasked with producing a new ethical frameworkthat researchers at all stages of their careercould follow in order to ensure an ethical approachto their research with social media data.

  • 10:11

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So in February of 2016, we ran a two-day workshop in Aberdeen.We invited some of the key scholars and thinkersin this field to come along and help us to basically co-developa new ethical framework for people to work through who areworking with social media data.

  • 10:31

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: This framework is designed for use by anyonefrom undergraduate students right up to professorsand so on.So the first part of the frameworkdeals with the sort of legal and terms and conditionsaspects of social media data.So before we can really think about the ethicsfrom the participant's point of view,we have to be sure that we've read the specific termsand conditions of the platform itself,and that we're also up to speed with any legal requirementsaround the use of social media data,any disciplinary requirements, or any requirements thatare set out by our place of work, such as the universitythat we work in, and our department and so on.

  • 11:17

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: And that we've spoken with our specific ethics boardwithin our place of work.OK, so the next step in working through this frameworkis to decide whether or not the data that you want to work withshould be considered as public or private.And here, a key question that you could ask yourselfis, do the social media users reasonablyexpect to be observed by strangers.

  • 11:41

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So to answer this question, you need to go backto the social media setting.Is it an open public space, such as within Twitter,or is this data being presented in a closed group?For example, a closed or secret groupwithin Facebook, or a discussion forumonline in which you have to register or gaina password to enter the space.

  • 12:08

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: If the data is presented publicly,then it's less problematic.Similarly, if the data is being createdby a public figure, such as a politician or a musicianor an actor, then probably they'retrying to reach as wide an audience as possible.And again, this is less problematic.But if the data might seem to be more sensitive,or that it's taking place in a more private space,then you need to consider how to proceed with that.

  • 12:36

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So the first port call here would perhapsbe to approach a gatekeeper, such as a group admin, whomight be able to advise you on whether or notthis data is problematic.They might be able to seek the approvalof the members of the group.Again, going back to issues aroundwhether the data is sensitive, whether itmight cause any potential harm to the social media usersif that data was presented to a new audience.

  • 13:07

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So these are the issues that you needto consider when deciding how or whether to use the data.You might also want to take into consideration your own roleas a researcher, and whether or notyou are participating in these conversations online, as well.Is there a blurring of boundaries between researcherand participant?

  • 13:27

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Are you taking part in the conversation?And if so, are you doing so openlyas a researcher that's seeking data, or are youdoing so as another social media user with an interestin the discussion taking place?In which case, you really need to thinkabout the ethics of contributing to that conversationand, in some cases, perhaps guidingthe conversation for your own purposes as a researcher,and whether or not to disclose your main purposefor participation in that group.

  • 14:03

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Once you've determined whether or notyou can consider the data as public or private,you need to also consider whether or notthe social media users are potentially vulnerable.So are we potentially working with data produced by childrenor vulnerable adults?If you think that this might be the case,then this places a different responsibility on youas a researcher to seek informed consent from the users,if they're adults, or perhaps from parentsor responsible adults in the case of children.

  • 14:38

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Once you've dealt with this issue,you then finally need to considerwhether the subject matter can be considered sensitive.So going back to whether or not youthink that exposing this data or using this datamight place the participants under potential risk of harm.And again, that's considering issues aboutwhether you're working with data thatlooks at illegal activity, financial status,extramarital relationships.

  • 15:08

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: These are just a few examples of the kinds of subjects thatmight potentially be sensitive.And if you're working with sensitive data, thenagain this means that you're goingto need to look at issues around whether you needto seek informed consent, and placing more importanceon making sure that the data is kept anonymous.And in some very extreme cases, youmight decide that in fact this subject matter and this datais far too sensitive to work with,and you might need to revert to more traditional datacollection methods, such as working with questionnaires,focus groups, or in-depth interviews.

  • 15:44

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So, in research today, we're increasinglyexpected to not only share the outputsand the findings of our research, but in many casesto share our data sets, such as, for example, research whichis funded by the UK Research Councils, in which it'sstipulated that we have to share our data sets online,unless we can make a good argument that the data issensitive or so on.

  • 16:07

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So the question really is, are yougoing to share your data set either with other researchersor with the general public or with peoplewith your own organization?And if so, will social media usersbe anonymised sufficiently in those publishedoutputs and shared data sets?

  • 16:28

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: So the question that you really need to askis whether or not you can publish or share this data set.And that goes back to issues around anonymity,informed consent, privacy, and the sensitivity of the data.[Case Studies]So now that I've introduced the framework,I thought it might be useful to present a number of casestudies that might help you to workthrough the different scenarios you might find yourselfin with social media data.

  • 16:57

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Context.The researcher wishes to study support mechanismsbetween members of a discussion forumwhich deals with mental health issues such as depressionand feelings of suicide.The forum is a closed forum which is password-protected,and registration must be approved by a gatekeeper,or a site admin.Concerns.The researcher is aware that this data is private.

  • 17:18

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: There's a high expectation of privacyon behalf of the users, who feel it is a safe space where theywill only be conversing with other peoplein the same situation.This raises questions about the ethics of accessing the data,and how to report the findings of the data if it is accessed.Solution.The researcher needs to treat this data asprivate and sensitive.

  • 17:38

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: In order to access the data, the researchershould consider seeking consent from the gatekeeperof the community, or the site admin, whomight seek the approval of the groupmore widely before deciding.Once consent has been granted, the researchermight wish to make themselves known to the communityand give participants the right to opt outso that their data is not republished or analyzed.

  • 17:58

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: The gatekeeper might grant the researcher accessto a certain area of the site, and retain a safe spaceto accommodate community members whoare not comfortable with the researcher's presence.If the researcher wishes to republish certain units of datain order to illustrate their findings,it is ethical to seek informed consent from each forum userwhose data will be republished.Community members should be fully anonymisedin any research outputs.

  • 18:22

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Case study two.Context.A researcher wishes to study pro-legalization narrativeson marijuana use.The data will be collected from Twitter,so it is open, public data.The researcher will gather data over the last seven daysposted with the hashtags cannabis, legalize,and I smoke it.Concerns.Firstly, the subject matter is sensitive,because it refers to an activity thatis still illegal in the UK.

  • 18:48

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Secondly, there may be users under the age of 18contributing to the debate.Therefore, the researcher must work outhow to handle the data in terms of protecting anonymity.Solution.The researcher decides that the data is publicbecause it is posted on Twitter, a platform on which the defaultsetting for posts is public.Most profiles are set to public, and can be viewed and followedby anyone.

  • 19:10

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Furthermore, the use of hashtags implies that platform usersare keen to contribute to a community or debate,and therefore expect an even greater number of peopleto see their data.The subject matter is sensitive, though,and there could be children contributing data, so thereis considerable risk of harm.The researcher decides it is OK to access the dataand present results from aggregate data,but it is not OK to publish data set, prohibitedby Twitter anyhow, or republish direct quotes whichwill lead interested parties to the user's profile,hence compromising anonymity.

  • 19:42

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: The researcher will therefore present paraphrased quotes,removing ID handles, to reflect the themes that emerge,and provide details on how interested parties mightrecreate the data search for themselves.Some direct quotes may be used with informed consentfrom the platform user, but the researcherknows he must take steps to ensure that the user isover the age of 18.Case study three.

  • 20:03

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Context.A researcher wishes to study public interactionson a dating platform such as Tinder.Although the posts under scrutinyare public, rather than through private messaging,she needs to sign up to Tinder to view them.By signing up, she has to fill in a registration form,including questions such as I am a woman lookingfor a man, woman, et cetera.It is therefore reasonable to thinkthat users of the platform expectthat other people viewing that profilemight be doing so for similar, ie dating, reasons.

  • 20:32

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: The researcher is also aware that theremay be people under the age of 18 using the platform.The users of the platform are aware that thereis a very large number of people using the platformand potentially able to access their profile.Concerns.Firstly, can the researcher ethicallyaccess and republish this data, giventhat the users of the platform havea reasonable expectation that people seeing their dataare like-minded?

  • 20:54

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Secondly, is there a chance that vulnerable people,such as children, could be using the platform?Thirdly, is the data likely to be sensitive?Solution.The researcher decides that, although the platform users mayexpect others viewing their profile to be like-minded,they will be expecting strangers to view their profile,so the data is not private.

  • 21:15

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: There is, however, a chance that childrencould be using the platform, and the datais potentially sensitive, eg under-age children engagingin sexual talk or activity, or peoplelooking to engage in extramarital relationshipsand so on.The researcher therefore can access and analyze the data,but needs to be careful with republishing.She does not publish the data set,and when writing up her results she only uses quotes that areparaphrased and she is sure cannot be used to identifythe platform user.

  • 21:42

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Consent to use data is problematic here,because the platform is popular with those under the age of 18,who may be dishonest about their ageor use a misleading photograph.[Conclusion]So I hope that you found the video useful and the frameworkuseful in helping you to work through your social media data.

  • 22:02

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: Conversations on standards in social media ethicshave to be ongoing, because technology alwayschanges and social media platforms are continuouslychanging, as are the terms and conditionsaround those platforms.So we would hope that new ethical frameworks would emergeand refine with time as technology changes,and technology use changes.

  • 22:25

    DR. LEANNE TOWNSEND [continued]: The framework itself should be considered as guidance.And it's not prescriptive, because each social mediacontext is unique.The ultimate responsibility lies with the researcher themselves,along with their ethics committeeto ensure that the approach that is being taken is ethical.But I do hope that the framework has provided some guidancewith that, and hopefully raised awarenessof the ethical issues that do surroundthe use of social media data in research.

  • 22:53


Video Info

Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Publication Year: 2017

Video Type:Interview

Methods: Social media research, Research ethics, Informed consent, Anonymity, Privacy, Vulnerable groups

Keywords: boundaries and authority; Facebook; framework agreement; guidelines as topic; informed consent; internet; minors; practices, strategies, and tools; privacy issues; risk; roles and responsibilities; technologies; Twitter; vulnerable adults ... Show More

Segment Info

Segment Num.: 1

Persons Discussed:

Events Discussed:



The current influx of social media data presents a valuable opportunity for researchers to access large data sets of rich, naturally occurring data. While researchers have begun taking advantage of this opportunity, questions have arisen around the ethics of how that data should be used. Dr. Leanne Townsend explains these questions and presents a framework for solutions, including case studies to practice application.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

Social Media Research & Ethics

The current influx of social media data presents a valuable opportunity for researchers to access large data sets of rich, naturally occurring data. While researchers have begun taking advantage of this opportunity, questions have arisen around the ethics of how that data should be used. Dr. Leanne Townsend explains these questions and presents a framework for solutions, including case studies to practice application.

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website