Ethics of researching twitter communities (#smsociety15)

I recently attended the Social Media and Society conference held in Toronto Ontario. During the conference, I saw many different presentations from different academic backgrounds (e.g. sports, media studies, sociology, economics, etc). I was struck by how few people from Education were at the conference, but alas, I digress. I’m writing this post because I want your opinion on an matter of ethics.

There were many people within the conference that did research on twitter. There were even workshops that demonstrated tools that allowed you to capture twitter data and provide some level of contextual analysis on that data. For the most part, I did not see an issue with these studies, but then I did.

I didn’t see a problem when the studies were looking at some phenomenon or another. When they were looking at hashtag trending, or trying to describe how twitter was used as a tool for social change.

Then, a presentation perked my interest. Someone was doing research on #hcsmca (health care social media Canada). I attended the session and was impressed when the presenter immediately said, if you are Tweeting about this session please also use the #hcsmca hashtag – as this community was directly involved in the research (she did in-depth interviews with active members of the community). They (the #hcsmca community) want to know what is being said. Out of respect for the community, the presenter asked that we please include them in the presentation tweets. I found myself nodding. I agreed completely.

Then I attended a session on #BCSM (Breast cancer social media). This session was presented by a high school sophomore. He was doing the research as part of his sophomore project. He presented an amazingly complex analysis of the 100,000+ tweets that he had scraped from the #bcsm hashtag. Throughout the presentation I felt uncomfortable. I even tweeted out about how, in some ways, I felt violated.


Over the last year I have actively participated in the #bcsm chat. I had never heard of the person doing the presentation (nor had the #bcsm facilitators). I had no idea that someone was scraping our tweets and subjecting them to psychological content analysis.

During the session, I asked the presenter if he had talked to the facilitators of the chat. He said no. He said he was waiting until the paper was finished and was going to give them a copy of the completed study. I wasn’t sure what to say to that, other than to encourage him to talk the facilitators sooner rather than later. But I couldn’t help by feel that something was wrong. Why would he not feel the need to reach out to the facilitators of the chat before conducting the research on the chat?

I recall from a book report that I did on the book Netnography (about doing ethnographic research on the Internet), which talks about consent in an interesting way that has really struck a cord with me. One of my lessons from that book was that although people consented to putting their information on a public forum on the Internet, they did not necessary consent to having that information be included in a research study. This describes exactly how I felt. I felt like my information had been taken for the purpose of research without anyone ever asking me. Worse, that the presenter had absolutely no interest in the actual topic of our community – just that we were a convenient sample in which to draw from. It felt wrong.

Now I wonder, is this an overreaction? How is what he did different than the folks that did the awesome presentation on #blacklivesmatter – or any other hashtag for that matter? I think in part, it is because in the case of #bcsm, what was being studied was a community of care.  The community that isn’t actually that large (over the course of a year, there were approximately 80 unique tweeters). The fact that it is a community of care matters. I likely would not have had the same reaction if he had studied the #lrnchat or #phdchat hashtags.

I think that at a minimum, if we are to do ethical research on social media communities, that it behooves us to at least let the community facilitators know, if not the entire community. As participants in the community, we have a right to be informed that our tweets will be included in a research study. The presenter actually included tweets on his slide presentation with names blocked out – as Kozinets‘ points out – entering the tweets into a Google search and you know exactly who said them – again you have a situation where you are presenting something in research where the person did not have an opportunity to consent to be included. One might even argue that women with breast cancer represent a vulnerable population – and as such, a higher standard of care/ethics should need to be met.

I am extra concerned because this high school student is entering into the realm of research without adequate guidance. Not only did his research get praised, he won an award for being the youngest scholar at the conference. Never was there any question of the ethical implications of doing research on a potentially vulnerable twitter community.

So, readers of my blog, what do you think? Am I over-reacting? Please use this poll to vote – Should social media researchers be required to inform communities before researching them? Please feel free to leave a comment. I want to engage in dialogue around this, so that it can be better understood. What are the ethical obligations of anyone wishing to conduct research/analysis on a twitter community of care? Are the obligations different if the community is not care based? (e.g. #lrnchat).

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Rebecca. For me, you have identified a dilemma of using ‘public’ data in research and your wish to consider people’s vulnerability is honourable. In our rhizo14 research we did consider the issue of quotes ‘linking back’ to identity but it really isn’t straightforward or obvious – here’s our table on data use that we circulated on rhizo 14 and sent out with the survey but we have no guarantee that every tweeter to the hashtag would have seen it https://francesbell.wordpress.com/research/rhizo14-research/
    I can see that contacting the moderator of a closed community/ group (something you had to join actively) might make sense but in looking through rhizo14 hashtag archive, we found people who had been tagged in tweets. And who ‘owns’ a hashtag? My own feeling is that the leadership of a community of care (and that could be a ‘leader’ and/or the group itself ) have a responsibility to promote the digital literacy of participants so that they can make informed decisions on what they share in a ‘public’ scrapable channel like Twitter.

  2. U think aggregate data collection is fine but quoting should be w permission. Almost impossible to inform (and get permission from) an entire community but maybe letting ppl know on Twitter or as u say telling facilitators.

    • I don’t understand why this isn’t considered a straight invasion of privacy issue. Listening in on conversations without permission of those in conversation is un ethical. All this kid is learning is how regard people as research objects. Winning an award from the conference shows that many of us haven’t the social skills or training to be trusted with data of any kind. I find this disrespectful.

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  1. Is scraping Twitter an ethical approach? – smculturesite
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