Time to rewrite the rules of research?
Robert Bain looks back on yesterday’s debate on privacy in social media research.
In their efforts to protect research from regulatory straitjackets and public opprobrium, are research associations leading the industry up a dead end?
That was the question debated yesterday by representatives of research associations and companies engaged in social media research, in a webinar hosted by the GreenBook blog and chaired by Andrew Jeavons.
It all relates to how researchers deal with information they find in blogs, communities, Twitter, Facebook and so on. Must we still respect the anonymity of those involved? Do we need their consent?
New guidelines from Esomar, draft guidelines from Casro and a discussion paper from the MRS seem to suggest we do. The associations have sought to apply to social media the principles of anonymity, informed consent and the separation of research from sales and marketing. Their efforts have met with an impassioned response.
Michalis Michael of DigitalMR has said Esomar and the MRS are behind the times, Ray Poynter has urged research to “join the 21st century”, while Annie Pettit of Conversition imagined a eulogy for a defunct trade organisation that failed to adapt to a new world. Michael and Poynter were among those discussing the matter with representatives of the trade bodies yesterday.
“In an attempt to stay ever purer, organisations are coming up with a narrower and narrower definition of market research”
Barry Ryan of the MRS argued that, rather than lagging behind, researchers were way ahead of the times in realising so long ago the potential for data to be misused, and the importance of protecting it. The codes and guidelines which have been developed over the years should still apply to social media research because “in nearly all respects they are simply restatements of the applicable law”, he said.
Adam Phillips of Esomar said research is built on people’s trust, and that the new guidelines were “a good starting point” for maintaining this trust in the social media age.
But Ray Poynter of Vision Critical said that “in an attempt to stay ever purer, organisations such as the MRS, in particular, are coming up with a narrower and narrower definition of market research”. If we’re not careful, most of what researchers do will soon be classed as ‘not research’, he said.
A frustrated Michael of DigitalMR said that if these guidelines take hold, “we’ll probably go out of business in favour of software development companies that do not abide by our ethical codes”. He pointed to the persistent use of the word ‘respondent’ which has little meaning in the context of social media monitoring.
Tom Anderson of Anderson Analytics was even more dismissive, saying the guidelines represented “a naive attempt by some trade organisations to remain relevant”, which was more likely to hinder companies than help them. Such guidelines are not needed and most practitioners won’t pay them much attention, Anderson said, because companies in this area are “already looking away from the traditional market research space and competing with a totally new set of companies”. Survey researchers know “next to nothing” about social media research, he said, and should not be looked to for guidance.
“A solution you devise yourself is going to be far superior to a solution somebody imposes upon you”
Michael argued that we should set out from the assumption that somebody who posts online “wants his opinion to be heard” and knows what the implications are. If they don’t, “tough luck”.
But the trade associations say they are simply upholding long-established principles and interpreting the relevant laws in order to anticipate any legal problems. In the UK, for example, the Information Commissioner’s Office has the power to issue fines of up to half a million pounds for data breaches.
Peter Milla of Casro’s social media task force spoke in favour of self-regulation, saying “a solution you devise yourself is going to be far superior to a solution somebody imposes upon you”. Poynter disagreed, saying that self-regulation had “had its day”. He highlighted the exemption of market research from do-not-call lists as an example of rules drawn up by “the chattering classes” rather than by the people whom the rules are supposedly there to protect. The public, Poynter said, “hate the fact” that researchers aren’t subject to the rules.
In two quick polls at the end of the debate, a majority of listeners agreed that research codes should be applied to social media research – but there was uncertainty about whether current proposals are “heading in the right direction”, with 41% saying ‘don’t know’ and only 34% saying yes.
What seems rather lacking from the debate at the moment is data on how internet users themselves actually feel about these issues. Last year Vovici conducted a study suggesting that stated views on online tracking have little influence on people’s behaviour online, while ad targeting firm Specific Media has claimed (perhaps not surprisingly) that its research shows consumers are less concerned about privacy than industry bodies. Tom Anderson said yesterday that research by his firm suggested consumers understood that comments posted online could be read and used by companies, and weren’t troubled by it.
If the research industry wants to keep people’s trust, then it would be good to see more research conducted into what that means in the online world and what steps can be taken to achieve it.