The Ethics of Research on Facebook

AAA Committee on Ethics

Since Facebook and similar sites are explicitly public forums, does the analysis and use of imagery and text posted on social media sites require an informed consent process? Recently the AAA Committee on Ethics discussed this question in response to a query from a AAA member as to whether there exists a formal policy on ethical praxis and research with social media sites. The short answer: there is no such AAA policy or statement. So we asked current and former Committee on Ethics members for their views on this matter.

One commenter highlighted the fact that there are important distinctions in the terms of engagement people assume for public online forums vs. social media sites with restricted memberships. If there are thousands of members and anyone can join the conversation (meaning, you don’t have to be invited), then confidentiality is not an issue because the forum is a public arena, open for anyone to read the conversations, connect them to multiple areas of inquiry, and possibly quote them in their research or in other contexts. On the other hand, if membership in the group is restricted in some way, there would be a ethical problem if the researcher were pretending to be part of the community and then using its discussions without permission in her research.

Facebook poses an interesting dilemma in this regard because of the multi-tiered “friend” structure and multiple possibilities for security settings. There is legitimately no expectation of privacy on Facebook, yet, in practice, many users forget that.

As another committee member suggested, a reasonable person would not expect to find their Facebook comments reproduced in other contexts with interpretative frameworks applied to them. Thus, proposed research relying on Facebook content might prompt some human subject oversight committees (IRBs) to require that the researcher post an announcement of research intent on her Facebook page. Ethical praxis means active avoidance of deception or betrayal in the research/subject relationship, as well as avoidance of the perception of deception or betrayal. If a researcher does not tell anyone that she is collecting data for analysis and dissemination, that may amount to covert research.

A proactive way to confront these issues is to figure out a way to convey the message that users are researchers as well as participants in the social media forum. For example, the researcher might identify herself as a researcher on her own Facebook page, state that she is using quotes from the lists she belongs to and name those lists, and include a link to a pdf of her research design.

Other ethical issues arise when publishing quotes or imagery from such research. Given global access to “Google” and other search engines and software, it is far too easy to identify the original author of any Facebook or other social media post. Pseudonyms are inadequate. Best practice here would be to ask research subjects for permission to use direct quotes and imagery, indicating the context in which the material would be used, and giving subjects the opportunity to opt-out of direct quotation (in which case the researcher can always summarize or paraphrase).

For additional resources on this issue, check out these blogposts that explore the lack of consensus among researchers about the parameters and expectations of privacy and the boundaries of the public:

Michael Zimmer: Is It Ethical to Harvest Twitter Accounts without Consent?

Online Papers on “Research in the Facebook Era

See also federal advisory committee guidance on Internet research: Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP), “Considerations and Recommendations Concerning Internet Research and Human Subjects Research Regulations, with Revisions” (2013).