NSMNSS report on research ethics in social media research by Janet Salmons
New Social Media,
New Social Science…
and New Ethical Issues!
By Janet Salmons, PhD
Capella University School of Business & Technology and Vision2Lead
NSMNSS Network Member & Expert Contributor to the NSMNSS Blog
Ethics: a Persistent Thread of NSMNSS Discussion .................................................................... 1
NSMNSS Background .................................................................................................................. 2
Data and Methods Used to Develop This Report....................................................................... 3
Social Media and Ethical Research: Questions and Answers ..................................................... 4
Participants ......................................................................................................................... 6
Research Site..................................................................................................................... 11
Informed Consent ............................................................................................................. 16
The Data............................................................................................................................ 20
Research Guidance ........................................................................................................... 22
Methodology and Methods.............................................................................................. 24
Outstanding Questions and Next Steps.................................................................................... 24
Questions for discussion........................................................................................................... 27
Social Media and Ethical Research: Guidelines, Codes and Resources.................................... 29
Professional Associations and Societies’ Guidelines ................................................................ 29
Business and Market Research Guidelines............................................................................... 29
Governmental Agencies’ Guidelines......................................................................................... 30
Books and Articles..................................................................................................................... 30
References ................................................................................................................................ 31
ETHICS: A PERSISTENT THREAD OF NSMNSS DISCUSSION
Our New Social Media, New Social Science events and discussions
have engaged new and experienced scholars in conversations
about diverse aspects of research in the digital age. Regardless of
each event’s purported topic, questions about research ethics
inevitably emerged as researchers struggled to determine what is
right. Clearly many situations may be adequately addressed with adaptation of long‐
recognized ethical values and standards aimed at protection of human participants.
However, new thinking is needed because traditional approaches to research ethics do not
always pertain to online research given the distinctive characteristics of Internet‐mediated
communications and behaviours on social networking sites.
The Internet and the World Wide Web are not new, and forward‐thinking scholars have
been conducting research about it for some time. Thought leaders have drafted guidelines
and discuss “Internet Research Ethics (IRE)” as a distinct field of study (Buchanan, 2011). Yet
as communications technologies develop and various types of online research become more
widely used, questions continue to surface.
This report summarises the key issues raised by network
members and explores the ethics resources they consult when
looking for ethics guidance. Taken together, this analysis of
views from the NSMNSS network provide a snapshot of
researchers’ perspectives on current issues related to
designing and conducting ethical research with social media and advice available to them.
The report also identifies gaps in knowledge and unanswered questions as related to the
use of social media for scholarly research purposes thus opening new questions for further
discussion in the network, and in the institutions and associations that are involved in
contemporary social science research.
presents new ethical
problems and recasts
old ones in new guises
(HJones, 2011, p. 1H).
Given the United Kingdom roots of the NSMNSS project, most resources discussed in this
report are from UK‐based organizations. Some additional materials are included in the list
that begins on page 28. Please use the comment area on the NSMNSS blog or #NSMNSS to
suggest additional resources on Internet and social media research ethics.
New Social Media, New Social Science? (NSMNSS), led by NatCen and Sage
Publications UK, asks whether social science researchers should embrace
social media and, if so, what are the implications for our methods and
practice? The network
offers ways to explore whether
research using social media blurs the
boundaries between traditional and
emerging methodological approaches,
disciplines, and researcher and
participant relationships. In the first
year the NSMNSS project included
numerous online and face‐to‐face
events that welcomed established
scholars, instructors and
methodologists as well as students and
novice researchers. This multifaceted
year‐long dialogue exposed numerous
themes, but one consistently emerged:
The NSMNSS project is international
and multidisciplinary, so discussions of
research ethics also drew on varied
cultural viewpoints, regulatory frameworks, and disciplinary expectations. Contributors
pondered issues related to all stages of the process from designing and conducting to
reporting on research. While some dilemmas are more particular to qualitative or
quantitative inquiry, discussions of research ethics seemed to blur boundaries since many
dilemmas overlap or are common to all.
What is social media?
Based on an NSMNSS tweetchat, a questionnaire
to the network and related resources, a working
definition is proposed:
The term “social media” refers to websites, online
platforms or applications that allow for one‐to‐
one, one‐to‐many, or many‐to‐many synchronous
or asynchronous interactions between users who
can create, archive and retrieve user‐generated
content. In social media, the user is producer;
communication is interactive and networked with
fluid roles between those who generate and
receive content (Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013).
Social media allows users to define and create
groups, lists or circles of “friends” or “followers”
who have access to the user’s content and can
participate in 1‐to‐1 ,1‐ to‐many or many –to‐
Social media may include commercial social
networking or user‐developed sites, blogs and
microblogs, photo‐ and video‐sharing sites, chat
and messaging tools, virtual social or game
worlds, collaborative projects, forums and online
communities, and/or crowdsourcing sites.
DATA AND METHODS USED TO DEVELOP THIS REPORT
Event transcripts provide an important way to understand the issues important to those
who have participated in the NSMNSS network. NSMNSS convened four “Knowledge
Exchange Seminars” in 2012‐2013. Reports from and posts related to these face‐to‐face
events and two further conferences were posted on the blog. In addition, tweetchats and
webinars allowed global participants to join the conversation. Again, transcripts, links and
related resources were posted on the NSMNSS blog. The blog has become a place for
scholarly and informal exchange as well as an archive of past conversations. Using nCapture,
all of this posted material was uploaded into nVivo for close review and analysis.
To directly question network participants about specific themes that emerged during the
events, an online questionnaire was distributed to the network in the spring of 2013. Sixty‐
eight respondents including editors and ethics board members, faculty members,
researchers in academic, business and not for profit organizations, doctoral researchers and
graduate students answered short and narrative questions. Diverse locations were also
represented; those who offered their information listed the United Kingdom, United States,
Italy, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.
Findings from this questionnaire provide an additional lens through which to view
approaches and strategies, resources and guidelines used by online researchers.
Network members shared the resources they consult when trying to learn about and make
decisions in regard to perceived ethical issues. All recommended guidelines were reviewed
and those with substantive content about online or social media research ethics were
selected for this report. These sources are classified as:
Professional Associations and
Association of Online and Internet Research (AOIR),
British Educational Research Association (BERA) and
the British Psychological Society (BPS).
Business and Market Research
Business and market social media research guidelines
included those from CASRO, European Society for
Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR) and
Market Research Society (MRS), Association (MRA)
and Organization (MRO).
Materials aimed at academics and practitioners in specific disciplines focus on issues
particular to their professions and suggest approaches that fit within appropriate regulatory
parameters. Guidelines for an association of educators, for example, might be more
attentive to issues associated with research with students under the age of 16 whereas an
association of psychologists might have a greater interest in online research involving
sensitive topics or vulnerable populations. Some associations are multi‐disciplinary, so aim
to present a broader set of perspectives that researchers can adapt to their own needs.
Materials are aimed at professionals in business and market research who make wide use of
social media. Again, such resources emphasize parameters relevant to their respective
Based on the NSMNSS members’ comments it is apparent that these codes and resources,
easily accessible online, serve more than their own intended audiences. As members
consulted these materials numerous questions surfaced in each of the seven thematic area
leading to a broader question: do extant guidelines, codes and resources suggested by
network members provide coherent answers?
In the next section the concerns, observations and requests of network members will be
discussed by theme, followed by highlights of the available guidance for researchers. This
review also aimed to identify areas of agreement and gaps, strengths and limitations of
existing codes and guidelines. Each of these guidelines included a broad recommendation
for more dialogue about online research ethics, and this discussion is offered in a
constructive spirit in an effort to spur broader consideration by the field.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND ETHICAL RESEARCH: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
The NSMNSS events and responses to the questionnaire generated numerous comments‐‐
often passionate, sometimes despairing ‐‐ about social media and research ethics. While
many graduate and doctoral students participated in the network, quandaries associated
with research ethics were offered by everyone. No one theme took precedence. While
“informed consent” and “research setting” were prominent themes, when given a chance
network members chose “all of the above.” As the pie chart generated by responses to the
questionnaire shows, the pieces of the pie are relatively similar in size.
Seven inter‐related themes emerged from an analysis of all of the recorded comments by
NSMNSS members, including the questionnaire responses:
Participants: Issues related to online sampling and recruiting to find, screen, and select
appropriate and verifiable research participants.
Identity: Issues related to the identity, anonymity and/or privacy of the participant and the
Research site: Issues related to the setting for the study or source of data.
Informed consent: Issues related to the determination of when consent is needed and what
type of consent is adequate.
Data: Issues related to user‐generated content and ownership and protection of data.
Research guidance: Issues related to the academic institutions and committees that prepare
the next generation of researchers and must approve researchers’ proposals or decide
whether their research is adequate for tenure or promotion.
Methods and methodologies: Issues related to implications of social media research for the
ways we think about research methods and methodologies.
The first five themes are of immediate interest to researchers, because they are intrinsic to
decisions that must be made from the earliest stages of the research design. Some
researchers can readily apply the ethical principles they have always used, while others find
the online milieu just does not invite a simple translation into this new culture. The final two
themes are of broader concern to the education and training of researchers and the field of
social science research.
Naturally, not all of the issues pertain to all social media researchers or pertain in the same
way. Qualitative researchers, who generally
collect data in ways that entail closer interaction
with participants in interviews. Focus groups or
observations have different concerns from
quantitative researchers who work with large
datasets or surveys. Nevertheless, as the NSMNSS
tagline suggests, social media research “blurs the boundaries” making it worthwhile to
consider the issues from a methodologically agnostic position.
When asked, “What ethical
questions or issues do you feel
need more attention and
clarity?” one NSMNSS member
commented: “I think they would
all benefit from attention and
Issues Generated by the NSMNSS Network
For many researchers the study’s success hinges on the recruitment of participants. The
issues grouped within this theme fall into two categories: 1) recruiting participants online
and 2) missing potential participants when recruiting occurs online.
When questionnaire respondents were asked: “What issues are of concern when you think
about recruiting participants online for qualitative or quantitative studies?” NSMNSS
members requested guidance for:
Appropriate ways to recruit participants using open‐access websites and blogs, member‐only
or friend‐oriented social media sites, virtual worlds or email lists, and
Ways to verify the credibility and age of participants recruited online and how to handle
recruitment when participants are children, youth or one’s own students.
While it might seem that lively social networking sites are full of potential participants,
NSMSNN members were uncertain about whether they might overstep ethical parameters
in the recruiting process. In some cases they were considering recruitment in social media
sites where they participated in their own personal lives or professional networking. At the
same time they worried about whether they would find the right participants.
Network members also expressed an unease about ethical issues related to the potential
exclusion of participants who do not have on‐line access or do not have access at home,
where they might have time and interest for research participation. They observed that
social media data “may not be representative for a whole society” and “social media users
are not representative of any larger group. They are only representative of social media
users.” They wondered “who uses what social media? Who uses no social media?” Answers
to such questions would influence choices for where, when and how to recruit participants
Relevant Guidelines and Recommendations
The association and academic guidelines reviewed for this report did not explicitly address
issues raised by network members about use of specific social media in recruitment or
about how to be inclusive since not everyone is online and not all Internet users are on
social media. However, according to CASRO market research guidelines when recruiting
participants in social media spaces, researchers should (Resnick, 2011, p. 8):
Clearly represent their activities, purposes and identities when contacting or interacting with
potential panelists or research participants, and
panelists or participants.
These broad directives point to honest representation of researchers to prospective
participants. While additional pointers related to recruiting online fall within the themes of
Identity, Research Site and Informed Consent in other sections of this report, it seems that
there is a gap when it comes to specific recommendations for ethically recruiting
participants in various types of social media and online spaces, or exemplars that might
demonstrate various options. As well, additional guidelines may be helpful for researchers
who need to determine whether the online presence of the target population is adequate to
support online participant recruitment or whether a conventional or hybrid approach would
Issues Generated by the NSMNSS Network
A second theme can be characterized broadly as identity issues. These include questions
about the identity of researchers as well as of participants and indeed the definition of a
NSMNSS members expressed uncertainty about when it is appropriate to collect what data
from social media spaces without disclosing their identities as researchers. In the same vein,
if they were unsure how best to introduce themselves in a social media space, or whether
their known presence as researchers would influence behaviors in an online community or
discussion. These questions overlapped with discussions of private versus public spaces
online, discussed below in the Research Setting theme.
Respondents to the questionnaire indicated concerns about the privacy of people behind
the social media exchanges—the “users” who make the posts. Apprehensions were focused
in particular on the difficulty of protecting anonymity of participants. As well, researchers
questioned how to protect identities of participants who knowingly or unknowingly
contribute data when user‐generated content is collected.
Network members also wondered whether large databases and archives are far enough
removed from the people associated with the content that the concept of “human subject”
does not apply. Taking this further, they questioned whether an avatar or digital
representation should be identified as a human participant and if so, how to identity (with
off‐screen or on‐screen name?) and obtain consent (by avatar or person behind it?).
One suggestion they raised was to develop collaborative methods that might involve
participants in reviewing research protocols or preliminary findings. Could such approaches
help researchers understand the community members’ or participants’ expectations of
privacy? Also discussed was the changing role of researchers. For qualitative or quantitative
researchers who have direct contact with participants, the need to establish relationships
could be challenging since researchers need to observe boundaries between personal and
professional identities online and respect privacy of potential participants. Researchers
expressed concerns about trying to reach out to potential participants who might be
suspicious of anyone outside their friendship networks. At the same time, by revealing their
identities and contact information researchers could put themselves at risk.
Relevant Guidelines and Recommendations
Several topics related to identity are found in the selected guidelines pertaining to the
participant and the researcher. Points related to deception or covert research are covered
below as part of the Informed Consent theme.
Identity and the Participant
The British Psychological Society (BPS) “Report of the Working Party on Conducting
Research on the Internet: Guidelines for ethical practice in psychological research online”
(2013) points to challenges in verification of identity of participants online. They suggest
that researchers think through these issues and evaluate the risks and ethical practices from
the earliest stages of research planning (p. 2). One high risk factor identified is the “degree
to which the nature of the study makes it critical to confirm the actual identity of the
participant, or particular participant characteristics (such as gender or age)” (BPS, 2013, p.
4). BPS suggests that while it is possible to employ mechanisms to authenticate participant
identity (such as checks made by credit cards, banks, using passwords, or registration of an
e‐mail, user name and/or password), such approaches may involve additional costs and
time, as well as reduce the number of participants willing to take part (p. 2, 4).
Pseudonyms and Digital Identities
One reason for the difficulty in verifying identity may be that people in the social media site
use pseudonyms or do not give full names to protect privacy. The AOIR guidelines, “Ethical
Decision‐Making and Internet Research” acknowledge the difficulty in applying conventional
concepts about the nature of human subjects to online research. “The internet complicates
the fundamental research ethics question of personhood. Is an avatar a person? Is one’s
digital information an extension of the self?” (Markham, Buchanan, & Committee, 2012, p.
6) Given these uncertainties it may be hard to decide whether or how the ethics for
protection human subjects applies.
[The assumption that research entails human subjects] persists as a
guiding concept for ethical social research, yet has been long
critiqued for being ill‐suited for models of inquiry that follow non‐
biomedical procedures for interacting with people or don’t interact
directly with people at all, for example, studying published texts….
The AOIR guidelines (2013) point out that in studies where data is collected from individuals
through emails or interviews, it is more straightforward to define the study as one with
human subjects. However the converse is not necessarily true since even in studies where
data is collected, scraped or accessed from large datasets, “it may be overly simple to
consider that individuals are not involved” (p. 4). They suggest that “all digital information at
some point involves individual persons, consideration of principles related to research on
human subjects may be necessary even if it is not immediately apparent how and where
persons are involved in the research data” (p. 4). AOIR further points out:
[T]he question of whether one is dealing with a human subject is
different from the question about whether information is linked to
individuals: Can we assume a person is wholly removed from large
data pools? For example, a data set containing thousands of tweets
or an aggregation of surfing behaviors collected from a bot is
perhaps far removed from the persons who engaged in these
activities. In these scenarios, it is possible to forget that there was
ever a person somewhere in the process that could be directly or
indirectly impacted by the research. (p. 7)
Both AOIR and BPS remind researchers that “anonymized” datasets are searchable and
contain enough personal information and metadata that may enable users to be identified
(BPS, 2013; Markham et al., 2012). BPS goes on to suggest that the findings of the research,
often published online, is more publicly accessible and leaves permanent records of
communications that in a face‐to‐face situation would be transitory (BPS, 2013).
Identity and the Researcher
The BPS guidelines (2013) suggest that researchers think about their online demeanor—
even when they are not engaged in research. Researchers need to consider ways their
online identities can help to establish credibility and trust with individuals who participate in
Researchers need to consider how to present themselves via the
internet in order to sensitively maintain professional boundaries
online. For example, many psychologists have a personal as well as
research related websites. Care should be taken to maintain a
boundary between research/professional use of the internet and
personal life, for example by using separate e‐mail addresses for
professional and personal use on the corresponding website…..
Professional integrity in research practice can be maintained by
understanding the potential for conflicting relationships and that
professional/private boundaries can be difficult to manage. (p. 7)
Clearly, just as researchers can learn more about participants than they might volunteer by
searching for them online, participants can do the same when trying to decide whether the
researcher is legitimate.
The guidelines highlighted here provide detailed explanations of various dilemmas and
circumstances consider in relation to identity issues. They raise additional ethical concerns
about the identity of known participants in qualitative research or unknown participants
whose posts and tweets became part of archives or datasets. These resources describe risk
factors and food for researchers’ thought but offer little in the way of specific advice about
how to design and conduct studies that mitigate such risks.
Issues Generated by the NSMNSS Network
Identity issues are inter‐related with another theme that emerged from the analysis of
NSMNSS network members: questions about the research setting. The research site refers
to the online site where data is collected, whether from 1‐1 or group interviews, participant
or covert observations or access to archives. Again, issues of the research site are inter‐
related with issues of identity, informed consent and data.
NSMNSS members felt that the definition of online research settings in the context of social
media or social networking is itself problematic since the means of communication vary
greatly from one social media space to another. The diverse ways people interact using
social media (with written text, live or recorded audio, images or video) mean different
types of data could be collected—each with its own ethical dilemmas. Researchers need to
understand the cultural meaning s and distinctions between how users act and interact with
different social media. As one questionnaire respondent noted, “the ethics issues for each
form of social media must be considered separately as well as holistically.”
Features of social media sites are largely determined by commercial entities, whose goals
are driven by the desire for traffic and revenue. Therefore these online spaces are not
neutral. NSMNSS members raised the question: “do researchers have a responsibility to
challenge platform owners about how they operate and how they collect and use posted
Network members highlighted significant questions about what is public versus private in
social media spaces—indeed this was one of the most common dilemmas posed throughout
the entire project. Does access by membership or special log‐in accounts mean the site is
private? Might there be both public and private spaces in the same social media site? What
do users expect when they post? (For more on this topic, see the NatCen report, “Ethics of
online and social media research: Users’ views.”)
Network members presented a range of perspectives on these matters. One side leaned
toward a position that defines social media sites—and materials (text, images or media)
posted on them—are public and can be freely used by researchers. Comments such as the
following illustrate this position:
Posts and tweets are public and consent is not needed as long as users are not identified.
If information is in the public domain ‐ cannot it be thought of in the same way as literature,
where citations and references are adequate?
Using posts on Twitter is like a mass observation studies where researchers do not get
consent, they just listen.
From another side, researchers expressed doubts about use of materials posted on social
media sites. Comments such as the following illustrate this position:
Do users expect others to use their writing as data? Even though it may seem to be public,
can we assume that users’ consent to having their posts analysed? And if the poster did not
intend the data to be used for research ‐ can we do it?
Even if I say something in public, I don’t necessarily agree to have it recorded and
Metadata attached to posts may mean the user can be identified.
[I] don't necessarily think there is a right answer, but I personally feel uncomfortable about
some of the practices around this.
Digital literacy is a factor, since not everyone who posts understands that their text or
photos can be used by others.
At the initial NSMNSS Knowledge Exchange Seminar held on July 24, 2012, participants
differentiated types of spaces as follows:
Public space – traditionally content is contributed with the expectation that it will be read by
anyone in the public on sites such as blogs and comments left on news websites. Most
identified and quoted unless this might cause harm, in which case quotes should be
Private space ‐ where users would expect their comments to be private and available only to
genuine community members. These are often called ‘walled gardens’ or ‘cloisters’. Such
spaces require registration and passwords and include private forums, communities, chat
rooms and instant messaging. There was a clear consensus that researchers require
permission from the site owner to carry out work and users cannot be identified without
their prior consent, anonymous citing is essential unless users’ permission for verbatim has
been obtained. We also discussed how important it was in these spaces to identify oneself as
a researcher to those you are conversing with, there was little support for covert ‘lurking’ in
these spaces although some researchers had conducted studies in this way. We recognised
the similarities here to older ethical discussions about the ethics of undertaking covert/overt
Semi‐public spaces – one member of the group raised the issue that between private and
public there are a semi‐public set of spaces. The point was that in some cases the boundary
between public and semi‐public space is often be blurred, e.g. Facebook, a series of
homepages and many niche (but open) forums or communities, open chat rooms and
Twitter. These are semi‐public as people contribute content and whilst open to all to read,
many would not expect it to be read or used by people not interested in that topic. The first
point the group agreed on was that if in doubt researchers are encouraged to treat sites as
‘semi‐public’ not public which led on to broad agreement that research can be carried out
subject to essentially the same terms as those within a private space.
Market research spaces – these are spaces that have been created for market, social and
opinion research purposes where users have been specifically informed of its function and
the use to which their comments might be put. Researchers here have clear responsibilities
to consider if verbatim quotes could cause harm to respondents.
Relevant Guidelines and Recommendations
The AOIR Ethics Guidelines (Markham et al., 2012) point out that:
Individual and cultural definitions and expectations of privacy are
ambiguous, contested, and changing. People may operate in public
spaces but maintain strong perceptions or expectations of privacy.
Or, they may acknowledge that the substance of their
communication is public, but that the specific context in which it
appears implies restrictions on how that information is ‐‐ or ought to
be ‐‐ used by other parties. (p. 6‐7)
AOIR authors suggest some key questions to consider when trying to distinguish public from
private spaces online (p. 11):
How is the context (venue/participants/data) being accessed?
How are participants / authors situated in the context?
How are participants/authors approached by the researcher?
How is the researcher situated in the context?
If access to an online context is publicly available, do members/participants/authors perceive
the context to be public?
What considerations might be necessary to accommodate ‘perceived privacy’?
In this context of ambiguity and change, the two professional association guidelines
consulted offer strong statements about what they expect of online researchers in their
respective disciplines. The (BPS) “Report of the Working Party on Conducting Research on
the Internet: Guidelines for Ethical Practice in Psychological Research Online” (2013)
introduces a temporal dimension by discussing how users posts can be shared or how they
entire archive can be exploited. They observe the lack of control a user may have on the
posts they make, even though they may have believed them to be private.
On the internet… much communication is conducted in both a
private and public location simultaneously. Moreover, a
communication perceived as private at the time might become public
at a much later date, when the archive is made publicly available.
(Researchers should be aware that participants may consider their
publicly accessible internet activity to be private, or indeed the
communication may even have been private when it was first
conducted. (p. 3)
Qualitative researchers need to weigh the risks and benefits of deception in the form of
‘lurking’ on chat rooms/discussion groups, etc. or intentionally joining a group as a member
in order to collect data (p. 7).
[It] is strongly arguable that postings to both synchronous and
asynchronous discussion groups… do not automatically count as
public activity. When constructing research using discussion groups,
any requirement for consent by participants obviously needs to be
tempered by a consideration of the nature of the research, the
intrusiveness and privacy implications of the data collected, analysed
and reported, and possible harm caused by the research. (p. 3)
BERA (2011) points to the importance associated with how communications are
characterized and defined: “Is a Twitter stream a document, treatable as text, or is it a
discussion? If a Tweet originates in one area but is then re‐tweeted out of its original
context does it retain the originator’s restrictions on its use and re‐use or is it simply
public?” (p. 3). While not offering a determination on which assumption researchers should
make, the British Educational Research Association takes what appears to be a firm stand in
favor of openness and disclosure:
[It is] considered the norm for the conduct of research. Researchers
must therefore avoid deception or subterfuge unless their research
design specifically requires it to ensure that the appropriate data is
collected or that the welfare of the researchers is not put in jeopardy.
Decisions to use non‐disclosure or subterfuge in research must be the
subject of full deliberation and subsequent disclosure in reporting.
(BERA, 2011, p. 6)
While these three sets of association guidelines comparably observe the difficulty in
distinguishing between “public” and “private” online, the business research guidelines from
ESOMAR (2011) state clear distinctions:
Public social media: This covers the majority of social media where access to entry is without
any form of barrier. It can also include those where a username or password is required, but
for identification or site revenue reasons, rather than to protect the privacy of the data
posted. Examples include public profile pages of social media networks; public micro‐
blogging posts; and many forums (including those where a username may be required, but is
automatically granted, that is they are not moderated).
Private social media: This covers areas where the user or the website do not want the data
to be publically accessible. All require username identification for access. Examples include:
‘private wall to wall’ or individual communications on social media networks; protected
posts on micro‐blogging sites; or forums/groups areas where admittance is controlled by an
administrator or moderator…. As a general rule, researchers should not copy or scrape
content within private areas, even if they have permission of the site owner. If researchers do
so, it should be made clear to all users that this is happening and they should provide
individuals with a process to be excluded from such data collection.
The NSMNSS discussions, members’ continued questions and varied perspectives from the
guidelines profiled in this report show the differentiation of public versus private online as
an unsettled area. As noted previously, it is up to the researcher to determine what aspects
of the “nature of the research” must be considered when making decisions about how to
treat the setting and participants/users, and whether and how the research design and
purpose may present ethical risks. While guidelines agree that researchers should respect
participants’ expectations of privacy, determining what those expectations are in a given
setting may be challenging. In some cases, such as a members‐only group, a moderator may
be consulted on the appropriateness and strategy for data collection. However, many social
networking sites lack such gatekeepers, leaving the researchers to make their own
Issues Generated by the NSMNSS Network
Questions associated with online identity, privacy and setting impact the requirements for,
and nature of, informed consent. When (and in what form) is consent required? Most
NSMNSS members assume that consent is needed in research that utilizes data collected
from online interviews or surveys; in such cases the logistics of obtaining consent
electronically, verifying identity, etc. may pose challenges. But they were more concerned
with determining whether and how to gain consent when collecting data from tweets,
blogs, or social media community posts. They asked?
What user‐posted data is acceptable to use without informed consent (including use of
profiles, "friending" people to access more information, images, etc.)?
If you want to obtain consent, how do you then inform people you used their tweets as data?
In a Tweetchat exchange contributors wondered:
“The mass observation studies didn't ask for consent, they just listened. Can social media be
used in the same way? I think so…”
“In an Internet utopia where everyone had perfect digital literacy they'd understand that
consent is in posting. But as that isn't the case and some people just aren't aware, I think the
research consent issue remains.”
“Does the nature of consent need modernising? “
Some pointed out that the use of data generated for other purposes (e.g. social interactions
or in‐group discussions) and then ‘drawn down’ without consent is potentially problematic.
They saw similar issues for the use of data sets (e.g. health records) generated for other
purposes, without informing the individuals from whom the data was collected.
Relevant Guidelines and Recommendations
Both BPS (2013) and BERA Guidelines (2011) appear to support obtaining consent in
observational studies conducted online. BERA guidelines state:
Social networking and other on‐line activities, including their video‐
based environments, present challenges for consideration of consent
issues and the participants must be clearly informed that their
participation and interactions are being monitored and analysed for
And BPS guidelines go further, placing the burden of proof on the researcher to
demonstrate that the value of covert observation or collection of user‐generated posts
“[t]here must be a clear and convincing argument for the use of
deception online, which is only condoned if the research question can
be seen to justify it” (p.7).
BPS guidelines point to a potentially problematic situation that can arise when even with the
researcher’s best intentions to “inform” participants, the material is not fully read or is not
With conventional research [the process of recruiting] provides an
opportunity to check that the nature of the task has been understood
before proceeding (informed consent). However …it is both possible
and indeed relatively usual for individuals to access web sites
without reading instructions, explanations or terms and conditions.
Participants may nominally give consent but without actually
reading the relevant information. In this sense, consent is provided
but it is not informed consent. …[In such situations]the participant
has made a choice not to read the information; if this is not desirable
for the research then additional steps could be considered to ensure
that the participants are able to make appropriate choices. (p. 4)
The BPS guidelines acknowledge that in psychology research generally, deception is
sometimes legitimately used. However:
The Society’s general ethical guidelines note that, unless consent has
been sought, observation of public behaviour “needs to take place
only where people would ‘reasonably expect to be observed by
strangers.”(Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2006: 13), essentially
vetoing observation in public spaces The discussion group
moderator or list owner can provide advice on the best ways to
research these groups.(p. 3)
BERA supports the idea that consent may be obtained at various points in the research
process, even at the conclusion of the analysis stage, as noted in their “Ethical Issues in
Online Research” guidelines (2011):
The BERA Ethical Guidelines (2004) state that voluntary informed
consent should be given prior to research taking place. However
informed consent can be obtained at different points throughout a
research project, and in online contexts it might not be possible to
obtain consent prior to research taking place. Indeed it might be the
case that informed consent cannot reasonably be sought or obtained
during a research project. In these cases it might be a better ethical
judgment to obtain informed consent when the project is at the point
of reporting and the research subject can decide what is acceptable
in relation to the way the research is to be reported (e.g. in a case
study, in individual quotes, or through vignettes). (p. 4).
The ESOMAR guidelines (2011) similarly link consent with the depersonalization of data in
If consent has not been obtained researchers must ensure that they
report only depersonalised data from social media sources. If
researchers are using automated data collection services, they are
recommended to use filters and controls to remove personal
identifiers such as user names, photos, links to the user’s profile. (p.
AOIR guidelines’ (2012) key principles suggest other considerations for determining when
and how to obtain consent. They ask: what is the research context, setting and population
and what are our responsibilities as researchers given what we learn about them?
The greater the vulnerability of the community / author / participant,
the greater the obligation of the researcher to protect the
community / author / participant. (p. 4)
AOIR authors offer researchers some key questions to consider when thinking about
consent issues in a specific social media space:
How do the terms of service articulate privacy of content and/or how it is shared with 3rd
Does the author consider personal network of connections sensitive information?
How is profile or location information used or stored by researcher?
Does author understand and agree to interaction that may be used for research purposes?
What harm might result from asking for consent, or through the process of asking for
What harm may result if consent is not obtained?
Will the process of requesting consent itself cause harm? (p. 11, 18)
As these excerpts show, professional societies are taking a fairly conservative stance on the
collection of data without consent. They place the responsibility on the researcher to
defend any research plan that includes use of data collected online without consent, yet
there are few clear criteria for determining when such practices might be considered
ethically sound. There are also few suggestions for how the consent agreement itself should
be articulated to address some of the issues mentioned throughout this report, such as the
use of direct quotes, use of data in publications, or use of avatar or other pseudonyms in
Issues Generated by the NSMNSS Network
Once the study has been conducted, the researcher has additional ethical dilemmas to
address in regard to the data itself. Many issues related to data have already been discussed
in earlier sections; here the focus is on the publication and distribution of findings based on
data collected online.
NSMNSS questionnaire respondents raised specific questions about data protection and
Can the researcher “own” data that someone else posted, not for a research purpose?
How can you guarantee confidentiality if the platform owns the data created and shared on
In respect to the participant, how can qualitative researchers provide the nuance, personal
voice, of the participants without using quotations that could be traced back to the
Relevant Guidelines and Recommendations
On the topic of protecting anonymity when using quotations in reports of research, the
AOIR guidelines (2012) offer key questions to consider (p. 10):
What immediate or future risk might occur by using exact‐quoted material in published
Are individuals adequately protected in pre‐publication reports, such as workshops,
conferences, or informal meetings?
The BPS guidelines (2013) similarly point to the risk of using direct quotations:
An additional breach of privacy or anonymity may occur if qualitative
researchers report quotes that may be located by search engines.
Researchers should avoid using quotes that are traceable to an
individual’s posting via a search engine unless the participant has
fully understood and consented to this. (p.3)
BPS adds caution in regard to aligning consent with permission to publish findings:
It may not be immediately obvious that distribution can become an
ethical issue: for example, a research subject may be content that
research is published in journal articles but unhappy for the same
material to be distributed via an open access outlet or blog which
has a wider circulation (p. 2). Not only is internet communication
often effectively public through greater visibility, traceability and
permanence, but research conducted online is more publicly
accessible and leaves permanent records of communications that in
a face‐to‐face situation would be transitory. (p. 3)
To reduce the possibility that participants can be traced, both BPS and BERA suggest
alternatives to using direct quotations. The BPS suggests:
Instead, they could consider the use of composite ‘characters’ for
analysis, and the paraphrasing of quotes, if this is consistent with the
research design. Specifically, the address of the website or discussion
forum from which any data is gathered should not be published
alongside any analysis of communication sourced from that same
site. The pseudonyms used by posters to communication forums
should be treated with the same ethical respect as a researcher
would treat a person’s real name. In cases where direct quotations
are necessary to the research methodology (for instance, in
conversation or discourse analysis), then the consent of those
sampled should be sought. (p. 4)
The BERA guidelines (2011) suggest that:
In qualitative research one way to protect participants is through
narrative and creative means, which might require the fictionalising
of aspects of the research or the creation of composite accounts,
such as in vignettes, providing generalized features based on a
number of specific accounts. (p.2)
The ESOMAR guidelines (2011) make comparable observations about the problem in the
context of market research and offer the following recommendations (p. 5):
Social media platforms offer many opportunities to view personally
identifiable data. Some people post information that overtly
discloses their identity, are aware of this and have a diminished
expectation of privacy. Others are not aware that the services they
are using are open for others to collect data from or think that they
have disguised their identity by using a pseudonym or username.
However, online services are now available that make it possible in
many cases to identify a “poster” from their username or comments
and can link that to many other aspects of personally identifiable
data including their address, phone number, likely income and socio
Masking is a technique whereby raw data is so changed that it
becomes very difficult for others to find the data online with a search
service and thereby identify the person from whom it originates. It is
a useful technique to ensure that the anonymity of people making
comments is preserved where:
1. The researcher has not sought their permission, and
2. The comment would be easily traceable with a search service.
Guidelines for dealing with data show that the vigilance of the researcher does not conclude
mpleted. Additional steps, including negotiating/re‐negotiating
consent agreements or creating composite or “masked”
exemplars may be needed to protect the identities of participants
once the study has been co
Two additional themes emerged from the analysis of NSMNSS network members’
comments and responses. For these two themes, classified as “Research Guidance” and
“Methods and Methodologies” little or no mention was made in the guidelines reviewed for
A prominent theme of NSMNSS discussion was: with all of these questions, where should
we turn for guidance for making ethical research decisions? A questionnaire respondent
observed that there is a “severe lack of guidance from both institution and discipline‐‐ they
are too far behind the changes in technology and the changing expectations of both the
researchers and the researched.”
When asked about resources consulted when determining the ethical approach to take in a
given study, resources from their respective fields, disciplines, or institutions were
important. A remarkable number suggested that they rely on their own values and instincts.
One stated, “We are left to our own devices,” a viewpoint shared by nearly half of
respondents who indicated “going by your own instincts and values about what is good
ethical practice” almost twice as often as they choose “following guidelines from faculty or
Indeed, many noted a need for e‐research ethics training for ethics review boards, research
supervisors and other decision‐makers who must approve a study design or allow
publication of its results. “Existing texts, guidance, instruction are outdated or not “robust”
enough.” They asked: “How can we equip researchers and supervisors with adequate digital
skills and literacies?”
For respondents to the questionnaire, guidelines from their respective disciplines,
professional associations and/or academic institutions were highly respected—but largely
found to be less than adequate. Comments included the following: “I find/get conflicting
advice which causes confusion” or “IRB still seems to be afraid of the Internet. “
One person commented:
Guidelines are usually taken directly from face‐to‐face ethics.
Guidelines do not cover aspects such as ensuring participants can't
participate multiple times. Is data retained anywhere, unknown to
researcher and participant? For example are any of the free survey
instruments harvesting information? Does the virtual world create
virtual personalities that do not truly reflect the response which
would be given through other media? Do people (potential
participants for secondary data collection) realise what they are
contributing to, in the absence of any informed consent? Does it
Still, some felt that existing guidelines could be adapted to fit their needs:
“I review all relevant research practices and ethics discussions available in the research
literature at the beginning and during a research project. My approach is a composite that
aims for best practice in the current technology and research environment.”
“So long as privacy and transparency are guaranteed as far as is possible, most traditional
guidelines can be applied to online data collection with only minor modifications.”
“I really don’t feel the need for the plethora of guidelines. Am old fashioned enough to
believe that social norms ought to be sufficient, including the laws relating to privacy,
defamation, etc., etc.”
“I consider data collected as part of a study (to the extent it can be recruited/conducted
ethically) similarly to data collected using conventional methods. “
Overall, NSMNSS members saw many needs for resources that acknowledge the ever‐
changing technologies as well as the multi‐disciplinary, multi‐method approaches that they
believe go beyond field‐specific disciplinary codes and work of associations.
METHODOLOGY AND METHODS
The biggest‐picture theme was represented less often in NSMNSS discussions, but is
presented here because it is of potential significance for those who are reflecting on all of
the issues and concerns highlighted in this report: do traditional methodologies and
methods need to be fundamentally re‐thought for the digital age? Some of the questions
and comments include:
Are community members co‐creators; are they participants or are they authors? Does this
change with the methodology adopted for the research?
Cultural competencies and flexibility in thought process is needed with more multicultural
participants as subjects.
Multi‐disciplinary, multi‐method approaches to research ethics are needed, while respecting
the influence of disciplinary codes and work of associations.
Researchers need to include more discussion of their thinking about methodologies and
methods, including rationales for their decisions, when writing papers. “Finding great
examples of solid methodology for new media research in education has been a bit of
The title of the NSMNSS project includes a well‐placed question mark: “New Social Media,
New Social Science?” The observations by network members seem to support greater
exploration of “new” social sciences.
OUTSTANDING QUESTIONS AND NEXT STEPS
This report aimed to match the ethics‐related questions, concerns and issues raised by
NSMNSS network members with advice or recommendations from the guidelines
mentioned by the network members. Some resources suggested by our members were not
included in this analysis because they did not discuss online, Internet or social media
research. Indeed, most other associations’ codes of ethics screened for this project made no
mention of these issues at all. So while more work may be needed, those profiled in this
report deserve credit for making significant efforts to guide the researchers in their
As can be seen by the juxtaposition of NSMNSS member questions and related excerpts
from guidelines from AOIR, BERA, BPS, ESOMAR and CASRO, in most cases the questions
were much more specific than the recommendations. Also, in many cases the guidelines
actually did more to identify problems than to offer solutions. While some points may be
specific to a professional area more particular to the association’s purview, most of the
guidelines contained useful material relevant to any researcher.
Almost all of the guidelines offered key questions or issues to consider at the design stage
and throughout the study. This approach assumes that the researcher either has the
knowledge, experience and judgment to make the best ethical decisions, or that the
researcher can turn to a dissertation supervisor or other mentor who can help determine
what approach would be best in the circumstance. Based on the comments recorded at
events and offered in response to the questionnaire, many student and early‐stage
researchers do not believe they have access to that kind of advice. At the same time, their
degree, publications and potentially their careers hinge on successful completion of their
research. Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked “what research ethics resources would be
most useful to you?” the top responses related to training as well as to clear and updated
ethics resources. They asked for:
A web site, blog or wiki where I can find updated e‐research ethics materials,
A set of clear guidelines I (or my institution) can adopt,
Opportunities for e‐research ethics training for students or independent researchers,
Opportunities for e‐research ethics training for ethics boards and research supervisors.
It is possible that the mission of NSMNSS attracts people who are open to working across
disciplines, but the sense that multi‐disciplinary dialogue and strategies are needed was
fairly consistent throughout the data with many comments such as these:
“There needs to be some kind of cross‐institutional standardization of IRB boards.”
“Research ethics are a part of a Big Picture of complexity of technological, political, cultural
and individual dimensions.”
“Holistic seminars” with participation of all natural and social scientists, philosophers and
historians are needed.
New thinking is crucial about research and ethics, and development of new literacies for
researchers are needed.
The questions are big and will require careful thought and considerations about how to
balance new opportunities with existing ethical, legal and disciplinary parameters. This
report is offered as a springboard for further conversation, problem‐solving and strategizing
about how to support and encourage ethical research that takes advantage of the
interactive, dynamic, global social media spaces and communities.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
The following are questions to consider and discuss as we aim to build new understandings
of the inter‐related areas of ethical concern in online research.
When is it appropriate to recruit participants online?
What ethical pitfalls relate to online recruitment and how should they be mitigated?
What permissions are needed from membership groups?
What time‐efficient and cost‐efficient ways can researchers use to verify participants’
identities, particularly when there is a concern about age or other characteristics of
How can/should researchers create an online presence that conveys credibility to
Do we need new thinking about avatars and digital identities distinct from “human
In what cases and at what point should researchers disclose their identities? When is
What are the best ethical practices when using large databases, especially when the
identities of individuals are not available?
How can participants be involved as reviewers of research protocols? Agreement needed?
What differentiation between “public” and “private” makes sense given the study,
population and setting? Criteria for deciding?
How can we determine users’ views of and expectations for privacy and collection of posts in
the specific online setting?
What permissions are needed, what site policies addressed to collect data using social
How can researchers be sure those they try to “inform” have read and understand the
What digital approaches can be used in social networking sites like YouTube, Twitter or
Facebook to communicate about and obtain consent?
Does the “standard” consent agreement need to be updated to include permissions for using
images, profile information and to cover various publication scenarios?
Can the researcher “own” data that someone else posted, not for a research purpose?
How can you guarantee confidentiality if the platform owns the data created and shared on
How can excerpts and quotes be used without disclosing users’ identities?
What responsibilities do researchers have when using “Big Data”?
What kinds of educational or training opportunities are needed for faculty, dissertation
supervisors, committees and ethics board reviewers?
What kinds of materials do they need to improve guidance of students and advancement for
social media researchers?
Methodologies and Methods:
Do we need to think through “new social media, new social science?” in the context of new
methodologies and digital methods?
SOCIAL MEDIA AND ETHICAL RESEARCH: GUIDELINES, CODES AND RESOURCES
Visit the NSMNSS blog (http://nsmnss.blogspot.com/) and Twitter stream (#NSMNSS) for
more information and notice of events! See also the link for the related NatCen report,
“Ethics of online and social media research: Users’ views.”
PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS AND SOCIETIES’ GUIDELINES
Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Guides 2002 and 2012
British Educational Research Association (BERA) Jones, C. (2011). Ethical issues in online
research. British Educational Research Association.
British Psychological Association (BPS) Report of the Working Party on Conducting Research
on the Internet: Guidelines for ethical practice in psychological research online
BUSINESS AND MARKET RESEARCH GUIDELINES
CASRO Social Media Research Guidelines
ESOMAR, European Society for Opinion & MarketingT Research, ICC/ESOMAR
Guideline on Social Media Research http://www.esomar.org/uploads/public/knowledge‐
Guideline for Online Research http://www.esomar.org/knowledge‐and‐standards/codes‐
Market Research Association Guide to the Top 16 Social Media Research Questions
Market Research Society (MRS) Guidelines for Online Research (2012)
GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES’ GUIDELINES
European Union Data Privacy Rules. See: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data‐protection/
WMA Declaration of Helsinki ‐ Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human
Subjects. See: http://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/b3/
BOOKS AND ARTICLES
Books suggested by network members include:
Browne, K., & Nash, C. J. (2010). Queer methods and methodologies Farnham: Ashgate
Deacon, D., Pickering, M., Golding, P., & Murdock, G. (2007). Researching communications:
A practical guide to methods in media and cultural analysis Bloomsbury Academic.
Hine, C. (Ed.). (2000). Virtual ethnography. Oxford: Berg.
Lee, R. M. (1993). Doing research on sensitive topics Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
McKee, H. A., & Porter, J. E. (2009). Ethics of internet research. New York: Peter Lang.
Miller, T., Birch, M., Mauthner, M., & Jessop, J. (Eds.). (2012). Ethics in Qualitative Research
(Second ed.). London: Sage Publications.
Orton‐Johnson, K. (2010). Ethics in Online Research. SAGE Internet Research Methods. In J.
Hughes (Ed.), Internet Research Methods. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Salmons, J. (2015)Qualitative Online Interviews. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Salmons, J. (2010). Online Interviews in Real Time. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Salmons, J. (Ed.). (2012). Cases in online interview research. Thousand Oaks: Sage
Articles suggested by network members include:
Berry, D. M. (2004). Internet research: privacy, ethics and alienation: an open source
approach. The Journal of Internet Research, 14(4), 323‐332.
Madge, C. (2007). Developing a geographers' agenda for online research ethics. Progress in
Human Geography, 31(5), 654‐674. doi: 10.1177/0309132507081496
Zimmer, M. (2010). "But the data is already public": On the ethics of research in
facebook. Ethics and Information Technology, 12(4), 313‐325.
Bechmann, A., & Lomborg, S. (2013). Mapping actor roles in social media: Different
perspectives on value creation in theories of user participation. New Media & Society, 15(5),
765‐781. doi: 10.1177/1461444812462853
BERA. (2011). Ethical guidelines for educational research: British Educational Research
BPS. (2013). Report of the working party on conducting research on the Internet guidelines
for ethical practice in psychological research online. Research guidelines and policy
documents, 28. http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/Public%20files/inf206‐guidelines‐for‐
Buchanan, E. (2011). Internet research ethics: Past, present, future. In M. Consalvo & C. Ess
(Eds.), The handbook of Internet studies (Vol. West Sussex). New York: Wiley‐Blackwell.
Jones, C. (2011). Ethical issues in online research. British Educational Research Association.
Markham, A., Buchanan, E., & Committee, A. E. W. (2012). Ethical decision‐making and
Internet research: 2012. Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee from
Resnick, J. T. (2011). CASRO Social media research guidelines.