OPINION5 April 2012

The social media research debate – when ‘public’ isn't public


MRS’s Barry Ryan reponds to Andy Evans, who asked in a recent comment piece why researchers can’t treat tweets as public domain if that’s how the courts see them.

Andy Evans has made a common mistake – that the Market Research Society (MRS) code of conduct forbids the use of information posted online that was not explicitly posted as part of a research study.

This is a misinterpretation of our guidance, which first and foremost requires our members to abide by the law in conducting their business. The law may not have been written with social media in mind, but it remains the law. It covers four issues which specifically relate to usage in this area:

  • data protection
  • privacy
  • intellectual property
  • terms of use of the service itself (e.g. Facebook or Twitter)

Not all information found in public is in the public domain – a fact the BBC recognises in its rules for news reporting. Researchers have to be careful because the Data Protection Act 1998 does not contain a distinction between personal data in the private or public spheres, referring instead to the purpose for which data is processed. A tweet is in all likelihood purpose-free (i.e. it can be re-used for any purpose), given that Twitter is effectively a broadcast medium; so the problem Andy describes does not really exist. On the other hand, a personal comment on a friend’s photo or a Facebook page could be more restricted in its purpose.

Accordingly, MRS guidelines place limits on the collection of personal data where it is not clear or obvious that the data should be used for research. Other information, such as brand mentions or sentiment, are not protected by law and are not restricted by our guidelines.

MRS published a discussion paper, Online Data Collection and Privacy, on this topic in July 2011 and a further paper will be issued by our Standards Board in the coming days. MRS is also heavily involved in discussions with legislators as their thinking is developing in this area. It is worth noting, however, that legislators in the European Union and the UK are generally inclined towards being more restrictive rather than less. Another reason for researchers to use data ethically.

Barry Ryan is standards and policy manager at the MRS



9 years ago

You mention comments on photos on Facebook as being possibly private in nature and therefore different. This is only the case if the user has set their privacy settings so that their comments are not made public. If they have done so, those comments will not be found by social media monitoring tools (in the same way as protected tweets and DMs will not be found), and so the example does not hold. In almost all only social sites, the user has the option to hide information or to make it publicly available; the information a user makes publicly available will be found by monitoring tools, and should be accepted as being published in the public domain for the purposes of social media research.

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9 years ago

As Nigel said, if the person typing on the internet does so without attempting to make the comment private or to invitees only, then it is public domain I would have thought - the example of the photo comment is far too vague and speculative as to whether the poster was indeed intending it to remain private or open to public debate - you cant speculate on the intentions of the poster when deciding so strictly on purposes of law?

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