Social media data

Using social media data for research

If a research project involves using existing social media data, there are several ethical issues which researchers should be aware of. At the most general level, if you are using any material that initially involved live participants, you must treat that material in an ethical manner. That is, research ethics considerations apply in the world of social media to the same extent as in the offline world. Moreover, as noted in Markham & Buchanan (2012), “[w]hen making ethical decisions, researchers must balance the rights of subjects (as authors, as research participants, as people) with the social benefits of research and researchers’ rights to conduct research”.
As a starting point, consider the following specific considerations:

  • Consider whether the data are publicly available.
  • You may be able to access a profile or other kinds of social media data on a site because you are registered user. This is not the same as that information being publicly available.
  • You can only use the data available to you as registered user of a site in accordance with the policy of that site (which users consent to when they join). For example, Facebook allows the collection of information by third parties from its site, but users’ consent must be obtained.
  • BUT, it is not sufficient to say that using social media data is ethical just because it is legally accessible!

Non-publicly available data

If the social media data you want to use are NOT publicly available (e.g., Facebook):

  • Non-publicly available data will typically require registration, and agreement to abide by the conditions stated by the data owner.
  • Pay careful attention to terms of use! Please read and ensure that you understand and agree to follow any conditions placed on use of data.
  • Please note that if the conditions of data use require you to obtain informed consent, you must submit your project for ethical review using the PPLS Ethics Submission Portal.

Publicly available data

If the social media data you want to use ARE publicly available (e.g. Twitter or public Facebook groups), there are still ethical implications of using that data that you need to consider.

  • First and foremost: does the user have a reasonable expectation that their data could be used for research purposes without their consent? See this paper.
  • If not,  then the ethically responsible thing to do may be to obtain informed consent even though the data are public. Ethics is more stringent than the law!
    • Consider carefully whether there is any potential risk (psychological or otherwise) to the participants of their data being used for your project. If so, then discuss other options with a LEL Ethics Committee member.
    • Think about the people behind the data. Is the population you are targeting vulnerable (e.g., groups organised around mental health issues)? If so, then discuss options with a LEL Ethics Committee member.
    • Consider whether it is feasible to use an opt-out method, or to accept a ‘yes’ tweet or email if obtaining written informed consent the standard way is not feasible.
    • If you are reproducing a post or tweet, it may be particularly likely you should obtain consent (see below), so discuss with a LEL Ethics Committee member.
  • If possible, when presenting, publishing or sharing, use only aggregated data, i.e. no quoted posts or tweets (and no user IDs).
  • If you must use quoted posts or tweets, are there ways you could anonymise the data, or make it harder for them to be de-anonymised? For example:
    • Don’t collect or provide usernames alongside posts. 
    • However this method may not work because of Terms of Service guidelines (e.g., Twitter specifically says you must provide names/handles in published quoted tweets) and the ease with which quoted text is searchable online.
    • Don’t include tweets/posts that could be considered sensitive or personal
    • If any photos, imagery, or voice recordings are involved, careful consideration must be taken.
  • Pay careful attention to terms of use! Please read and ensure that you understand and agree to follow any conditions placed on use of data. 
    • For example, see above note about twitter user IDs.
    • The Twitter User Development Policy also says “…scraping the Services without the prior consent of Twitter is expressly prohibited”.

Additional guidance and resources

For additional guidance about using social media data please have a look at the following papers, contact the LEL Ethics Committee, or talk to your supervisor.