Expert ethical online research

19.5.2018

Researchers need skills and courage to build research designs that use social media so as to comply with ethical research criteria.

With its vast number of posts, social media appears to many researchers to be an attractive databank, whether they are looking to research people’s attitudes and behaviours or social change. The fact that the material is freely available does not, however, remove the importance of ethical considerations.

The ethical practices and guidelines on the use of online content in research are varied, in Finland and internationally. In Finland, the guidelines on preliminary ethical review in the human sciences do not separately address online research. In the digital era, the legislation concerning research is also hopelessly behind the times. In practice, researchers have to operate in a slightly grey area where online material is concerned and rely on their own judgment when making decisions.

Is the research subject the person or the data?

The guidelines for ethical review in the human sciences drawn up by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK take as their starting point the fact that research in the human sciences is steered by three ethical principles: respecting the autonomy of research subjects, avoiding harm, and privacy and data protection. The principles thus refer particularly to research where the subject of the research is a human being. Where online material is concerned, however, the boundary between the person, the data and the text is typically blurred.

Where online material is concerned the boundary between the person, the data and the text is typically blurred.

If the focus of the research is on the content, social media material can be compared with published data or material in registers, where the separate consent of the research subject is not required. However, the texts in social media material are typically produced by private individuals and the user’s name is usually visible.

Online research is often carried out in a context in which it would be difficult, and in practice virtually impossible, to obtain the consent of all the research subjects. Discussions on many web-based platforms are conducted anonymously and when using old material, for example, it is not often possible to find the contact details even of named contributors.

In online research, the research subject is thus inevitably hard to pin down, and drawing clear lines between humans and other entities is not a very sensible way of approaching ethics in online research. A more crucial issue is to consider in broader terms any harm caused by the research, and the vulnerability and privacy of the research subjects.

The publicity and privacy dilemma

On the internet, the distinction between public and private is easily blurred. In a social media context, technically public material means updates published so as to be accessible by everyone, such as on open discussion boards or in discussion groups. Clearly private material is, for example, messages sent to a researcher in confidence via a social media channel or messages from closed groups to which the researcher has access.

Still, even with posts that are technically public it can be difficult to judge the writers’ understanding of the public nature of the material. The concepts of private and public have a strong cultural basis. Furthermore, the privacy settings of the services change so often that ordinary users are not necessarily always sure which of their posts are private and which are not. This being the case, the fact that the information is publicly available is not on its own sufficient as an ethical principle and the researcher also needs to consider the context in which the material was produced and the sensitivity of the material.

The fact that the information is publicly available is not on its own sufficient as an ethical principle and the researcher also needs to consider the context in which the material was produced and the sensitivity of the material.

From a technical and legal point of view, the online platform on which the content is published is also a negotiating partner for research using online material. The researcher needs to be familiar with the terms and conditions of use of the online services concerned. These often set conditions governing the use of the material for research, and limit the availability of mechanically downloadable material either to protect the privacy of users or their own commercial operations. For example, using automated tools it is only possible to extract content from Facebook from public groups and pages, and even public updates on private profiles are not available. They are, however, visible in a browser and can easily become part of online ethnography material, for example.

Text and context

Researchers have, after all, been dealing with confidential material since before the digital era, and problems of protecting privacy are not fundamentally different in online materials compared with interview material, for example. At the analysis stage, it is also possible to handle social media material so as to preserve the anonymity and data protection of private individuals. In our research projects in political communication, for example, we anonymised ordinary users but left the names of the politicians visible.

However, anonymisation only resolves the challenges of the analysis stage. One particular feature of social media material is that although the research is only focussed on the text, it is easy to connect it back to the original writer. The sender of an isolated tweet can easily be found by entering the text in a search engine. In addition, it can be possible to identify even anonymised people by combining different material.

For this reason, ethical principles also have to be borne in mind when choosing quotes from material for research publications or if there is a desire to open material up for research use. When dealing with sensitive themes, a researcher has to weigh up whether to show samples of the material to the reader to improve the argument or attempt to safeguard the anonymity of the research subjects.

Knowledge, skill and courage

In the jungle of legislative texts and when rigidly interpreting ethical guidelines, it is easy to gain the impression that it is not legal or ethically advisable to use social media material at all. From the viewpoint of social sciences research in particular, besides being professionally skilled, researchers also need to be courageous enough and skilled enough to design research that uses social media in such ways that ethical research criteria are met. Numerous societally important themes are reflected on social media. It would be a pity, if, for example, research into the exercising of power in society had to ignore the digital aspect due to a lack of guidelines.

It would be a pity, if, for example, research into the exercising of power in society had to ignore the digital aspect due to a lack of guidelines.

As in all research, in online research there are research designs that should not be carried out for ethical reasons. The harm and consequences the research causes to research subjects, however, are factors defined by the context, making it impossible to provide generally applicable guidelines. However, different tools are available to aid consideration of the ethical aspects, such as those in the references below – for example, the ethical guidelines published by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) are an excellent starting point for researchers.

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, researcher, University of Helsinki


Further information:

AoIR (2012). Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Version 2.0. Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee. Final Draft; Association of Internet Researchers. http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf
Östman, S. & Turtiainen, R. (2016). From research ethics to researching ethics in an online specific context. Media and Communication, 4(4), pp. 66–74.
Tikka, Minttu (2014). Tutkija nuorten mediamaailmassa: tutkimuseettisiä kysymyksiä. Nuorisotutkimus journal, vol. 32(3).
Turtiainen, R. & Östman, S. (2013). Verkkotutkimuksen eettiset haasteet: Armi ja anoreksia. In: Laaksonen, S-M., Matikainen, J. & Tikka, M. (eds.). Otteita verkosta. Verkon ja sosiaalisen median tutkimusmenetelmät. Tampere: Vastapaino, pp. 49–67. http://www.otteitaverkosta.fi