Social Media and the Internet – All in this together?

Image from Sanjay Sharma's presentation

Image from Sanjay Sharma’s presentation

The Association of Research Ethics brought together expert presenters to explore the practice and problems of using social media in academic research. This event effectively brought to the fore key issues for ethics committee members and researchers. This post will give an over view of the key messages and points of debate. Below is a link to a storify of the tweets shared under the hashtag #AfREethics.

Academic research projects are exploring the activity of users on social media platforms. The speed of updating posts and responding to live events means that large volumes of data can be generated. This data contains metrics that can shape the focus of analysis and results can be published to ensure user anonymity. However the recent emergence of these techniques and the fast pace of change in this field have prevented a clear consensus on academic approaches to ethical issues around consent and privacy. For University ethics committees the implications and impact of social media research are largely only beginning to be considered. The speakers invited to present on these themes provided insight into this field of research as well as highlighting specific issues of concern.

Carl Miller, from Demos began the day with an overview of social media research into the UK general election campaign 2015. Social media research, he contends, is based on the belief that social media offers a window into political and social processes. Understandings of the impact of social media are developing, as illustrated by how political parties are using social media platforms in #GE2015. Posts from politicians join a crowded space on these platforms and can be responded to in unexpected ways (eg with the rise of photoshopped images). Carl and colleagues are using a variety of tools including social network analysis to explore networks emerging through Twitter posts. Computational analysis via machine learning is at the forefront of their methods and Carl highlighted how algorithms are ‘trained’ to detect sentiment. However Carl insists that issues of demography etc. mean that Twitter is not an alternative polling tool. The question of ethics in such work is complex and frameworks are regularly updated. Questions around individual harm and the effects of aggregating data need greater attention.

Farida Vis from The Visual Social Media Lab pointed to the near saturation of smartphone use that is increasing the widespread sharing of images. It is these acts of sharing that intensify ethical issues of social media data and breakdown boundaries between the production and consumption of information online. Farida urged that as researchers, we need to talk about the ethical frameworks that we want to see in place. By sharing and reflecting on practices we can help shape this debate. In particular Farida and later Anne Burns underscored the point that just because data is available doesn’t mean that we should use it. However as research analyses are often interested in broad trends rather than individual users, privacy can be protected.

Sanjay Sharma from Brunel University uses his own research of ambient race talk on Twitter to foreground issues that ethics committees need attending to. He pointed out that even recently research ethics statements often did not mention the internet. Research committees are, he stated, struggling to catch up with the implications of social media research. Whilst core issues have to be addressed, ‘ethics creep’ can result in prescriptive and regulatory approaches. Instead a position of open-ended dialogue can best serve research needs. The norms of platforms are commonly translated into what is seen as possible in research. Sanjay’s work exploring the #notracist Twitter stream highlights the power of the researcher in judging what is or is not racist posts. This interpretative element highlights the importance of qualitative approaches to understanding meaning behind users’ posts.

Some of these themes were echoed in Anne Burns presentation. Anne stated that personal information is the oil of the digital economy with the sharing aspect of social media platforms inciting a confessional approach. Anne claimed that privacy concerns are commonly seen either as a responsibility for individuals or as an uncontrollable matter. However researchers need to consider the implications of their actions when online material is repurposed as this can create new relations of visibility. Therefore as with research, ethics need to be seen as a process that needs regular attending, not simply as a matter agreed at the outset of a project.

Please follow the link below to see a collection of tweets posted on this event

Storify: SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET – ALL IN THIS TOGETHER? #AfREethics (with images, tweets) · sandysom · Storify.

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