Whose information is it anyway?

Social media websites have increasingly been utilised as research tools, presenting new opportunities to researchers. However, this new and diverse form of research tool has raised challenges and concerns (Moreno et al. 2013). Social media websites gather personal information from users when they open an account, such as name, gender, birthdate, and country of residence. But information is also collected from their patterns of usage. These include time of use; frequency; people and trends followed; use of external links etc. This information is stored, analysed and utilised by social media websites. This new form of media research, although advantageous, is raising new issues of media research ethics.

In an experiment conducted by Kramer (Core Data Science Team, Facebook, Inc.), Guillory and Hancock (both from the Departments of Communication and Information Science, Cornell University), Facebook examined the experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Their purpose was to find out whether “emotional contagions” affect the emotions of social media users. So in other words, whether emotions of social media users and their content was contagious to other users.

Facebook’s experiment raised ethical concerns surrounding the way in which the information was collected. The team used filtering software that allowed the researchers to filter through user’s News Feeds. The filtering system was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research. However, the 689, 003 participants, who were chosen at random, were not informed that they were being part of the study. There was no level of informed consent.

Since being published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study has led to concerns of how this type of media research is being carried out (Hunter 2014). The PNAS editor-in-chief, Inder M. Verma, has since acknowledged “questions have been raised about the principles of informed consent and opportunity to opt out” (Hunter 2014). Verma has however defended the paper, arguing that it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy at the time. This issue is that clauses of the policy regarding research were only added four months after the experiment took place (Hunter 2014).

In Hunter’s (2014) review of the research paper, he questions whether the experiment, conducted by researchers from both Facebook and Cornell University, think that they did not need the approval of a research ethics committee. The editor-in-chief argues that because this was an internal experiment by Facebook, that the university’s Institutional Review Board determined that the project “didn’t fall under Cornell’s Human Research Protection Program” (Hunter 2014.

There are many factors to consider in a case where human research is concerned. Hunter’s article goes into more detail concerning the ethical debate of the research article, and is a really interesting read to accompany to Facebook’s research, so it is definitely worth checking out.

I believe it is important to remember, that in the case of social media research, social media companies are not just the sites we interact with on a daily basis, but huge enterprises with a lot of corporate power. These corporations have access to a great deal of personal information, for their own use in social media research, but also for the use of external companies, for the right price.

If you are concerned about your personal information of social networking sites, check out the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner website, for more information, because as a social media user, you have the right to know who has access to what you put online.

Reference List

Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E. & Hancock, J. T. 2014, ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, pp. 8788-8790.

Hunter, D 2014, Facebook puts ethics of research by private companies in spotlight, The Conversation, viewed viewed 9.04.2015, <http://theconversation.com/facebook-puts-ethics-of-research-by-private-companies-in-spotlight-28798&gt;.


2 thoughts on “Whose information is it anyway?

  1. Great post! The point you make about the clauses of the policy only being added four months after the experiment took place is a really good one – and definitely suggests that the research wasn’t very ethical.
    Just out of interest – you mention at the start of your post that “Social media websites have increasingly been utilised as research tools”. Have you come across many other instances of social media being used for research, in a similar way to the Facebook emotional contagion study?

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! 🙂
      I know that traditional media sources are increasingly using social media to collect information from or about their consumers, in the form of polls, posts, links etc. Social media collects and provides such extensive information about its users – gender, age, preferences, trends. This wealth of information is being used by more and more sources – traditional media, marketers, retailers, companies.
      While I haven’t yet come across a similar study, that I can remember, I think social media is one of those things thats usefulness and potential will turn it into this powerful tool, and I’m sure we will see similar studies… and similar ethical dilemmas in the future. At the moment, I’m scoping out how social media is being used as a tool in marketing, and similar such avenues, for research and building those consumer relationships… So if you’re interested, you should check out my most recent post!

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