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  • 00:01

    [MUSIC PLAYING][Ericka Menchen Trevino Discussesthe Importance of Informed ConsentWhen Using Digital Trace Data]

  • 00:09

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO: I'm Erica Menchen-Trevino,and I am an assistant professor at American Universityin Washington DC.[Ericka Menchen Trevino, PhD, Assistant Professor,School of Communication, American University]I'm in the School of Communication, and I gotinterested in communication after I did my undergraduatein anthropology in the '90s and early 2000sand was very interested in technology

  • 00:31

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: and was interested in culture as well.And so I got into communication research that way,and also through my interest in technology and communicationstarted studying how people are impactedby online technologies, so that reallyled me more towards what I'm doing now,

  • 00:52

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: which is about digital methods and how we can incorporateresearch with digital traces into communicationresearch and social science more broadly.[What is digital trace data, and how is it useful in socialresearch?]Well, this particular project that I'm talking to you

  • 01:13

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: about today is about the informed consentprocess for digital trace data.So when we as social scientists collect data,we're used to collecting survey data,and we're also used to sort of observing online data.What my work does is actually ask

  • 01:34

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: people to collect their personal digital trace datathat's already on their computer--so, specifically, web browsing history.The informed consent process is really important.What the tool that I developed doesis present people's web browsing history traces to themin a very detailed way through interactive visualizations

  • 01:57

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: and gives them full control over what they want to share or notshare so that this rich data that we allhave on our computers can be part of social science researchprojects, if we choose to participate.[How and why do you collect digital trace data?]

  • 02:18

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: The data that's collected is the datathat's already on your computer, that'sthe web browsing history data.And it's combined with survey datajust by sending an ID over.So it's two types of data.So it's the browsing traces, as well as the survey responses.

  • 02:41

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: So the reason why that's important to haveis that my substantive interest is in political polarization.So I got interested in this topicafter the 2004 election, which was very surprising to methat John Kerry didn't win, even though I'm from Cincinnati,

  • 03:04

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: where like I should know because that'sthe exact geographic area why that happened.And one of the theories out thereis that online technologies will trap you in an echo chamber.I was like, well, I want to really investigate thisand understand this process and see what

  • 03:25

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: there is to this, basically.So in order to study that question,it's about exposure to media and its effects on attitudes.And how that's usually studied is justby asking people about their behaviorand asking them about their attitudes.Asking people about their media behavioris very, very difficult because people don't remember.

  • 03:47

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: It's a habit.Some people, also, there's some social desirability possibly,and people want to seem more informed.But really, it's just really difficultto remember all of the things that you do,and also people have a different conceptin their mind of what political browsing isthan a researcher might have.

  • 04:09

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: So you might think, oh, I'm just on the Colbert Report,I'm just having fun.Whereas I'm like, oh, this is like news consumption.So there's always reasons why self-reporting media useis difficult and problematic.So actual media exposure data is possiblewith digital technologies.It's already on your computer.

  • 04:31

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: So the goal is just to ask for that.And in order to ask for that, the number one priorityis an informed consent process.So I designed my software to have a very stepby step robust informed consent process.And then the study I'm talking about todaywas actually using an experiment to show that it actually

  • 04:53

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: informs people about their web browsing tracesbetter than if you didn't use the extension.[Is this approach effective for gathering information abouta range of topics?]This approach doesn't work for studiesof extremely sensitive topics, but assuming that people--

  • 05:16

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: and they know that it's a study about news are notdeleting their browsing to the New York Times,it's not really relevant.You can never capture everything,and you can especially never capture everythingif you are respecting people's privacy.So this is-- while you don't have everything,

  • 05:39

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: if you're studying a particular topic thatis not highly sensitive, it's their actual behavior.You're never going to have the complete history of everythingpeople have done.However, if you give people the choice,you can get something rather than nothing.And the self reports have their problems too,

  • 06:01

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: so you get two imperfect sources of information that hopefullyhelp you make a better rounded picture of whatpeople are doing with their online behavior.[Why is it important to preserve trust throughout the researchprocess?]There have been a number of scandals related

  • 06:22

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: to informed consent for digital trace data,such as the Cambridge Analytica issue, wherethey were gathering the data of your friendswithout their permission.So projects like this that are premised on trust between usersand researchers and using data well,

  • 06:45

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: there is always going to be a challenge in that.But this particular moment is particularly challengingbecause it's been in the news of peoplemisusing data and gathering data they're not supposed to gather.So to provide examples of how to do this well,

  • 07:06

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: there need to be 10 for every scandalto sort of balance it out because peopleremember the scandals and not the projects thatare done very well.So that has been a challenge and an increasing challengeover time.I think the only thing to do is to do good research,have good results that actually impact people's lives.

  • 07:29

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: And to promote it and to talk about it,and I think as more people talk about the good things thatcome out of this kind of research,the kind of benefits that we can havean understanding, in my case, how our world is impactedby online media, and a lot of other people besides me

  • 07:51

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: need to really show the benefits of this kind of thingover and over again because it's goingto be an issue for a long time in the future.[Are there any limitations to the amount of digital tracedata participants consent to share?]The kind of data that people are willing to shareis very different from what most people think

  • 08:17

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: it is, because people's behavior is,in terms of the consent process, isjust as is very different than what you think it would be.So I really haven't found any evidenceof selective sharing of anything related to politics.

  • 08:41

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: I mean, it's more shocking the kind of dataI do get than that kind of data that I don't get.[What advice would you give to students interested in thiskind of research?]What I've done is combining different kinds of research,And I think that it's really beneficial for students

  • 09:02

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: to get experience in multiple different types of researchand figure out interesting ways to combine them.So my initial methods training wasin anthropology and ethnography, cultural anthropology.And now I've done experiments, I've done surveys,I've done network analysis.

  • 09:22

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: So I think that the more exposureyou can get to different kinds of methods the betterfor students today.Especially learn some basic programmingto analyze any kind of digital data set you need to have.Just be able to clean data sets, at least,

  • 09:45

    ERICKA MENCHEN-TREVINO [continued]: is a really fundamental skill.[Further reading - Menchen Trevino, E.2018, Digital Trace Data and Social Research,A Proactive Research Ethics, In B. Foucault Welles & S.Gonzalez Bailon, Eds., The Oxford Handbookof Networked Communication.Oxford, United Kingdom - Oxford University Press.]


Ericka Menchen-Trevino, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Communication at American University, discusses her research on digital trace data, informed consent, and communication research, including what digital trace data is, how it is useful, how it is collected, its effectiveness for information gathering, the importance of trust, limitations to consent, and advice for students interested in this type of research.

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Ericka Menchen-Trevino Discusses the Importance of Informed Consent When Using Digital Trace Data

Ericka Menchen-Trevino, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Communication at American University, discusses her research on digital trace data, informed consent, and communication research, including what digital trace data is, how it is useful, how it is collected, its effectiveness for information gathering, the importance of trust, limitations to consent, and advice for students interested in this type of research.

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