ICA 2012: Researching Social Media: Ethical and Methodological Challenges

I’m currently in Phoenix, AZ for the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, participating on an important panel on “Researching Social Media: Ethical and Methodological Challenges“, organized by Anders Olof Larsson (Uppsala) and Hallvard Moe (Bergen). The panel is listed under the Communication and Technology division of ICA, but has implications well beyond that SIG:

One of the recent key trends in communication and technology research concerns the use so-called “big data” to study social media use. Whether its high profile projects on students’ Facebook use, comprehensive mappings of the blogosphere, or studies of Twitter use during crisis, the potential for collecting and processing large amounts of new forms of data has brought novel approaches and important insights. However, these new forms of data also require us to critically engage with some of the more delicate issues regarding how research on social media use is undertaken. The presentations will deal with how ethical challenges in these contexts can take on different forms, regarding how we as researchers deal with respondents and data providers, as well as how we communicate our ideas to institutional review boards. Bringing together scholars from Australia, Germany, Scandinavia and the US, the panel is well- suited to generate discussion among division members, as well as attendees beyond the CAT division.

My contribution is “New Media, New Ethics: How Social Media-Based Research Demand New Attention to Research Ethics“, where I discuss many of the  growing conceptual gaps that are emerging in relation to Internet research ethics:

Social media tools have opened up vast new means for communication, socialization, expression, and collaboration. They also have provided new avenues for researchers seeking to explore, observe, and measure human opinions, activities and interactions. While scholars, professional societies, and institutional review boards have long-established research ethics frameworks to ensure the rights and welfare of the research subjects are protected, the rapid rise of powerful social media platforms – where individuals increasingly share personal information on platforms with porous and shifting boundaries – provide new challenges to long-held ethical assumptions and guidelines. This talk will present various cases of social media-based research that expose new conceptual gaps in how we think about privacy, anonymity, consent, and harm in the 2.0 era.

My slides are available below, and here are some of the other research and resources I cite in the presentation:

  • Internet Research Ethics Digital Library, Resource Center and Commons website
  • Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Recommendations from the AoIR ethics working committee
  • Buchanan, E., & Ess, C. (2009). Internet research ethics and the institutional review board: current practices and issues. ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, 39(3), 43-49.
  • Carpenter, K & Dittrich, D. “Bridging the Distance: Removing the Technology Buffer and Seeking Consistent Ethical Analysis in Computer Security Research” 1st International Digital Ethics Symposium, Loyola University Chicago Center for Digital Ethics and Policy.
  • Moor, J. (1985). What is computer ethics? Metaphilosophy, 16, 266-275.
  • Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Ohm, P. (2009). Broken promises of privacy: Responding to the surprising failure of anonymization. UCLA Law Review, 57, 1701.
  • Soghoian, C. (2012). Enforced community standards for research on users of the Tor anonymity network. Financial Cryptography and Data Security, 7126, 146-153.
  • Zimmer, M. (2010). “But the data is already public”: On the ethics of research in Facebook. Ethics and Information Technology, 12(4), 313-325.


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