on the rights of privacy in research that harvests social media for data

Following up on my previous post on the Frontiers of Psychology decision to retract a published paper that investigated conspiratorial ideation by analyzing blog posts, the most recent statement by the Frontiers group re-writes its reasons for the retraction:

Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.

And, they continue: “we also must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects included in a study or paper.”

A troubling feature of this revised retraction is that is contradicts the first, which asserts there were no ethical issues with the research, but now there are. This does not speak well for the journal, its editors and the umbrella Frontiers group. (See here for commentary about the media coverage of the journal.)

But the heart of the matter is whether the identity of  bloggers who made comments openly and publicly should be protected? The short answer is, no. The key here is that bloggers’ personal comments are public and so once made, bloggers give up their rights to privacy. And indeed, in the discourse one presumes these bloggers do not wish to be anonymous, but to own their viewpoints.  Blog comments are not responses to a researcher’s queries offered in the frame of most social science research, which does offer protection of privacy through confidentiality and anonymity. The blog comments are therefore a legitimate source of found data that support a range of analyses, including in this case what they might reveal about conspiratorial ideation.

I would note though that this matter is not straightforward and harvesting of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) is still new territory for social scientists. There are essentially two positions:

  1. what is archived on the internet is public, and no consent is required from those who created the data
  2. what is archived is public, but the content creators imagined they were writing in private and so consent is required

(See here, for one discussion of both sides,  here for a discussion of the blogosphere as a source of data, here for a commentary on qualitative research blogs. And here for a legal opinion on the matter.)

2 thoughts on “on the rights of privacy in research that harvests social media for data

  1. Oh goodness, this is a hornet’s nest. Most marketing research associations (ESOMAR, CASRO, MRA, MRIA) insist that privacy is essential for all methods of research, from surveys to focus groups to social media research. Just because something is searchable online does not mean researchers can do anything they want with it.

    What we CAN do however is learn from comments in social media. There is rarely a need to copy names, userphotos, email addresses and other identifiable information into full length reports, abstracts, client reports, or other outcomes. We might be able to see them as the project researcher but we know that the learnings are important, not the individual people.

  2. Thanks Annie for your comment, a hornet’s nest indeed!

    We should always consider the context and not simply make blanket statements about what researchers should or should not do. Not all of the material stored and searchable on the internet is equivalent and we would be myopic to treat it as such. There are many instances where research questions can be answered with social media data and no need whatsoever to identify individuals or sources. There are also instances where the individuals and sources matter and it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise… for example, how and why would you anonymize Bill Moyer or Jerry Falwell in an analysis of the respective social media outlets in which they participate. And there are instances where one can make a reasonable assumption that anonymity isn’t expected by those who participate in social media.

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