Ethics of Social Media Research

Ethics of Social Media Research

Amir Manzoor
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2031-3.ch013
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Over the last decade, social media platforms have become a very popular channel of communication. This popularity has sparked an increasing interest among researchers to investigate the social media communication. Many studies have been done that collected the publicly available social media communication data to unearth significant patterns. However, one significant concern raised over such practice is the privacy of the individual's social media communication data. As such it is important that specific ethical guidelines are in place for future researches on social media sites. This chapter explores various ethical issues related to researches related to social networking sites. The chapter also provides a set of ethical guidelines that future researches on social media sites can use to address various ethical issues.
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1. Introduction

In a research on social media (Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, 2008), the publicly released Facebook data of approximately 1700 students of an anonymous, northeastern American university was collected. The research team recognized the various privacy concerns of the individuals related to their personal information. Therefore, the research team took many steps to protect the privacy of the research participants such as removal of student identity information from the dataset. The dataset was also reviewed by the institutional review board and other researchers were given access to this data on the condition that they will agree to strict terms and conditions of data use. However, these steps were proved to insufficient to protect the privacy of the data as identity of the subjects was quickly discovered (Lewis, 2008).

On the business side, there are many stories of violation of ethical principles. Target Corporation initiated an analytics program that was somehow able to do data mining about the female customers’ physique to determine whether customer is pregnant or not by calculating a pregnancy score. Target used this information to send coupons for baby items to customers according to their pregnancy scores. Target sent an email to a female customer who was a high school student. The email contained coupons for baby clothes and cribs. This email was read by the parents of the customers. Through Target apologized the parents for sending such an email, later it was discovered that this girl was indeed pregnant. However, this incident still highlighted how the large companies can secretly get access to customer private information and violate basic ethical principles (Hill, 2012). In another incident, travel company Orbitz used their data analytics program to find out that customers who owned Apple company products were willing to pay more for travel. Orbitz utilized this information to send higher price quotes for travel to customers who owned Apple phones (Riglian, 2012). In 2014, Facebook used the data of around 700,000 Facebook users in an experiment without their knowledge. Facebook manipulated these individuals' news feeds by reducing positive or negative content. The purpose of the study was to examine how the emotions of the individuals changes by looking at their subsequent posts (Klitzman, 2014). It appears that both academicians and companies are making innovative efforts to collect large datasets. However, the objectives of both are different. Academicians are using these large datasets to gain better understanding of certain phenomena. Companies are using these datasets to better understand customer needs and market their products. However, in their efforts, both academicians and companies are, intentionally or unintentionally, getting involved in violation of basic ethical principles related to privacy, data ownership and information ethics. Big data offers great opportunities to produce significant impact on social, cultural, political aspects of people lives. However, the use of big data also involves some unintended consequences such as violation of ethical principles. Some feel that such unintended consequences are part and parcel of the use of big data and. Whatever the case is, it is important that a set of ethical guidelines should be developed regarding the use of big data. It is important to recognize that these ethical guidelines for big data use shouldn’t be based on individual moral standards because every individual differs with respect to their views about what constitutes an ethical action.

Key Terms in this Chapter

End User License Agreement (EULA): Refers to a legal contract between a software application author or publisher and the user of that application.

Social media: Social media refers to websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.

Privacy: Refers to the right to be let alone, or freedom from interference or intrusion.

Ethics: Refers to moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity.

Ambivalence: The state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.

Ethical Guidelines: Also called ethical codes, these are used by groups and organizations to define what actions are morally right and wrong.

Data Anonymization: A type of information sanitization whose intent is privacy protection. It is the process of either encrypting or removing personally identifiable information from data sets, so that the people whom the data describe remain anonymous.

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