Research Ethics and Social Media

I come from an academic background in which survey and interviews are not a typical method of research, so I am not used to the topic of research ethics approval. I never conducted a survey or interview in my undergrad, so I am not very familiar with them. But since I started reading on the topic and talking about it, I became more and more aware of the importance of research ethics and its implications. Making sure that the participants understand the process and the purpose of the work they are contributing to, and also the possible implications of their contributions is vital. Before reading about Ethics approval processes, I would not have thought about possible distress caused for participants as much as I do now. Researchers who use surveys/interviews have to be very aware of the participants’ situation and vulnerability. While the research itself sees the participants as tools for collecting data, the participants themselves come from unique physical and mental environments which influence their reaction to the questions and the interview/survey as a whole. For them, not the research but their own feelings and experiences are at the center of attention during the process, and this has to be accounted for by the researcher.

I find the topic of research ethics extremely interesting and from what I’ve read so far, the biggest challenge seems to be taking into account ethical considerations without hindering innovative and important research. Especially while reading Goodyear [1], I got the impression that in many instances, the formal ethics approval process and the opinions of the ethics committee are in conflict with the research and its relevance. Goodyear identifies a gap in understanding about the ethics of social media, apps and wearable technologies and suggests a case-based reflexive approach. His list of ethical dilemmas and procedures is very valuable and gives a great insight into the multitude of issues that researchers in this field have to consider.

I personally identify two major problems: firstly, the individual participants of the research are all very different in terms of their mental and physical predispositions and the ways in which the research might influence them negatively or positively. Secondly, it can never be ensured 100% that the research will not cause distress in participants and the question is to what extent it is actually realistic to avoid all distress and negative consequences and if the probability of distress for a small percentage of participants should be weighed more heavily than the potential benefits of the study as a whole. Sometimes, certain participants might be excluded from the study because one potential threat/ harm is identified, while the potential positive aspects for them are left without consideration.

Goodyear questions this when writing about the FitBit study, which excluded classes with students with identified eating disorders because of the potential harmful consequences of closely monitoring one’s eating behaviour, while neglecting the fact that this could also have positive effects and work towards their cure. Goodyear states that for this study “high levels of regulations were adopted to protect against harm” because “the dominant pessimistic views about wearable devices in PE […] manifested themselves into assumptions about the potential for harm rather than good” [1, p.296]. The author concludes that “researchers must aim to balance opportunity with risk in order for the benefits of the research to be possible” (p. 296), which I consider a crucial point to keep in mind when considering research ethics.

In terms of research involving social media, Goodyear emphasizes the importance of respecting young people’s autonomy in online environments. From what I read, it seems like research involving under 18s is very restricted by ethical considerations, which, especially in online environments, denies young people the ability to use the internet responsibly and independently. It is indeed very important to protect young people from harmful content and threats to their wellbeing, however, this should not be confused with sheltering them from every potentially harmful instance and thus taking away their autonomy and disrespecting their ability to navigate the internet safely. Goodyear suggests that “[o]ne appropriate way forwards would be to adopt a culturally responsive relational and reflexive approach to ethics” which “recognises that researchers will not be able to fully understand the perspective of the varied cultured with whom they interact” and “does not base ethical procedures on assumptions of risk” (p.298)

Social media research will become more and more important due to the availability of massive amounts of data, thus, it is important to continuously work on research ethics perspectives on the topic. When talking about social media research, considerations regarding big data – data containing person related information – are hard to avoid.

Fossheim and Ingierd [2] identify two aspects of big data that are relevant for social science research. Firstly, the data directly reflects that individuals actually do, and secondly, it opens up the possibility to study entire populations.The authors state that  “data gathered from social media thus contain information about how individuals and groups are linked together” (p. 127), which can prove tremendously valuable for social science and other humanities research, and which makes it even more important to work on ethics approval procedures that make social media research possible.

Concluding, while research ethics and official institutions for ethics approval are important, it is crucial to keep in mind that ethical decision-making is a process that occurs throughout the research and is highly contextualised

For my own research, I will not conduct interviews of survey as the data I collect comes from open source Wiki databases. Furthermore, the objects of my research are people who are not alive anymore and the information about them was collaboratively compiled by individuals, who agreed to share this information publicly and free of copyright. The Wikimedia foundation policies informs all users that their contributions are publicly available and can be read, edited and used by anyone (https://foundation.wikimedia.org/wiki/Privacy_policy). There are projects and initiatives like the Wiki4R proposal [3] which aim to make Wiki databases better usable for scientific research, built on the fact that the data is already openly accessible and free to use.


[1] Goodyear, V.A. 2017. Social media, apps and wearable technologies: navigating ethical dilemmas and procedures. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 9(3), pp.285–302.

[2] Fossheim, H. and Ingierd, H. 2015. Internet research ethics. Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk.

[3] Mietchen, D., Hagedorn, G., Willighagen, E., Rico, M., Gómez-Pérez, A., Aibar, E., Rafes, K., Germain, C., Dunning, A., Pintscher, L. and Kinzler, D. 2015. Enabling Open Science: Wikidata for Research (Wiki4R). Research Ideas and Outcomes, 1.

 

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