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Informed consent in the digital age

Posted on 21 February 2014 .
Tags: Facebook, methodology, qualitative research, social media, Twitter

Alexandra FryThis blog was originally published on The Conversation.

The darker side of social media was in the spotlight last week, with #Neknomination fatalities and would-be speed skating medallist, Elise Christie, coming under fire internationally, questions about online privacy and regulations are once again hot topic.

For the world of research, social media presents a veritable goldmine of opportunity, with its with reams and reams of ‘naturally occurring’ data. But, before social researchers wade into it, there are important methodological and ethical questions to be answered. That’s what we’ve been doing at NatCen Social Research; published today is a report presenting findings from exploratory qualitative research about social media use in research.

Users’ views fell into three categories: sceptical, accepting and ambivalent. The accepting group thought social media could be a valuable tool for research, and would remove potential bias by interviewers. Those in the ambivalent category felt that they had little say in the matter and that their information would be taken regardless of their opinion. The third group was sceptical. Rather than an outright rejection of the idea, these people perceived a lack of credibility and quality of social media data.

Seeking consent online, whose responsibility?

Some users felt that the internet is public space and therefore users should only post online what they are happy for others to see - these users felt neither anonymity nor confidentiality should be afforded.

A more commonly held view was that researchers should seek consent, however the extent varied Some users felt consent should always be afforded, while others felt this could be waived as long as the research was for the ‘greater good’ (for example furthering knowledge about domestic violence).  Reasons consent was deemed necessary included; it is morally right, it promotes trust between the researcher and participant, and legitimises the research.

When it came to anonymity, most users felt it should always be afforded, as there are risks to identity and reputation. This is much more difficult online, as even quotes can be directly traced back to their owner. Researchers should take steps to ensure anonymity is guaranteed, for example, by never including twitter handles, and paraphrasing text (although twitters terms and conditions bar researchers from doing just that!) 

Patchy knowledge of privacy mechanisms

Users had a varied understanding of security and privacy settings due to complex and frequently changing security settings. General concerns about who regulated social media led to a lack of confidence in online safety.  Although users had concerns, many had not tried to change their settings. Users’ felt ill-informed about the information others could access about them. There’s a lesson here: researchers should not assume knowledge amongst potential participants and they should consider participants’ expectations when designing research.

Scepticism about social media data’s accuracy

This uneasiness about social media research was compounded by user’s confusion about the value of social media research. Users spoke from personal experience that sometimes their posts are incomplete, exaggerated or false. Users were concerned that taking a single ‘post’ or ‘picture’ without further context could lead to an inaccurate picture being painted of themselves. There was also the feeling that the internet provided a ‘veil’ which meant some users posted extreme and exaggerated views. This has real implications for researchers; if online content doesn’t reflect reality, is it a valuable data source?

If social media research is to gain credibility within the public domain, as it seems to in the academic world, researchers need to be transparent and flexible in their research.

Onus on communicating research’s value

It’s important to note that users’ views mirror the current academic debates about the ethics of online and social media research. Existing ethical principles still hold strong but we need to be flexible in their application in new and evolving platforms. Researchers need to consider how to better articulate the nature, value and rigour of their research. The criticisms of users point to a mixed method approach; using methods which both capture vast amounts of relevant information, coupled with approaches that offer depth and clarification.

Read the full report here.

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