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Challenges in Social Media Research Ethics

The next speaker at ANZCA 2017 is Mary Simpson, who discusses the perspective of ethics review panels in addressing approvals for social media research projects. Ethics committees often remain poorly informed about social media research, and have little practical experience in such research themselves. Traditional approaches to participant engagement and consent are not necessarily well suited to research approaches that utilise APIs for data gathering.

In decision-making processes about the appropriate ethical approaches to dealing with social media data, there is instead a need to consider the likely expectations of the social media user about their privacy or visibility. It is important to review the nature of the information provided by the social media user, as well as its likely intended purpose. Social media users may not intend for their data to be used for their purposes, and have not consented to their being used for research; further, there is a substantial potential for reidentifiability, even when the identities of authors are omitted, as long as the message text is provided verbatim. There is therefore a very significant need to consider the possible risks of harm to the user here.

Three key areas of concern need to be examined here: the legal and regulatory domain, including the terms of service of platforms as well as relevant disciplinary, funding, legal, and institutional guidelines; privacy and risk, including the expectations of users and their likely vulnerability from the publication of research covering their activities; and the re-use and publication of data, with a focus on approaches to the anonymisation of user contributions. Any ethics application in this field needs to be checked against these three areas of concern.