OPINION14 September 2016

The ethical use of social media research

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The difference between research in the digital and physical space is clear – but, asks Dr Michelle Goddard, what about the ethical considerations? 


If you are collecting information on a person’s attitudes, beliefs, habits, views or demographic characteristics, should it matter that you are collecting it on a virtual platform rather than on a physical street?  

Social media is a primary avenue for interaction and, as a result, is valued by clients and researchers for the wealth of data and the insights it can deliver. It covers platforms ranging from blogs or microblogs – such as Twitter – to video-, photo- or image-sharing sites (YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram, for example), and from online forums such as Mumsnet, to social networks including Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.

It also encompasses avatar-based social spaces, as well as virtual worlds and online gaming spaces, such as Second Life and The Sims. These provide a vast data store, with opportunities for researchers. However, use of all these platforms still needs to meet fundamental legal rules in robust data-protection legislation, and ethical principles and safeguards in ...