Ethical Social Media Research – A Contradiction in Terms?
Every time you use the internet to find a good shopping deal, share a piece of information on Facebook, or Tweet a joke to your followers, you will actually reach a far wider “audience” then you may realize. This is because of your cyber footprint, and that footprint is something researchers are very interested in. This has raised the issue of ethics, however, with people like Matt Knouff investigating how companies like Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, all private companies, use data to understand how we live.
What Your Cyber Footprint Has Told Others
Did you know that by looking at user data, Microsoft was able to identify which women were more likely to develop postnatal depression? Or that it has told Facebook more about the interaction between children and their parents? These companies have entire research departments dedicated to finding out this type of information, microscopically examining what most of us would class as our private lives.
Ethics and Social Media
All social media – and internet – users need to be aware that they are being watched. Facebook is a great tool for people, but it is also a behavioral lab. And a recent study at Harvard demonstrated that it isn’t anonymous either, because cross-referencing different pieces of data could help them identify specific participants. Sometimes, this was even incredibly easy to do and this really shows how careful we need to be.
Facebook has already come up with some interesting data, including:
- That 71% of people would not post something at least once.
- That children speak less to their parents when they turn 13.
- That children speak more to their parents once they move out.
While these may not seem like shocking figures, they do point out that Facebook looks at what you do even when you don’t post anything, and that they look into your private life. And this poses some really big privacy issues, something that companies like Facebook and Microsoft are very worried about.
Naturally, all the tech giants have extensive privacy policies in place. This means that they will not share information that allows others to identify someone, unless explicitly permitted to do so. However, Facebook has regularly had to change their privacy policies, and 50% of people who leave the network do so over privacy concerns. This would suggest that what is in place is not sufficient.
Ethics, therefore, need to focus on privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity. However, what Matt Knouff also uncovered was that ethics should focus on accuracy. It is all too easy to use large sets of data and draw conclusions on this that are inaccurate. The quality of data mined from social media is questionable at best, and this could potentially lead to significant errors and wrong conclusions being drawn. Misinterpretation is incredibly common, not in the least because cyber footprints are relatively new concepts that are still poorly understood. This means that a lot more research is needed first to determine accuracy of sources.