AfRE research ethics event: Social media and the internet – all in this together?

This was originally posted at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research (BCMCR) blogI have also blogged there about my research seminar presentation and my attendance to Prof Mark Banks’ research seminar, both in February 2015. 

On 23 April 2015 I attended an event at Bristol University organised by the Association for Research Ethics (AfRE). The day featured a great line up of speakers who are all doing really interesting research in social media and raising important questions about social media ethics.

First was Carl Miller of Demos, who is part of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM). He provided an interesting (and very topical) insight into tweets around the live debate for the 2015 General Election which took place a few weeks ago. By measuring the sentiment of tweets during the election, he could gauge how each politican was being received on Twitter (grouping positive and negative tweets into ‘boos’ and ‘cheers’). Carl used the term ‘computational social science’ to describe the type of work CASM does, and though the centre uses a lot of ‘big data’ Carl emphasised the importance of understanding individuals and the importance of context, which is the rationale behind my own methodological choices of interviews, diary keeping as well as ‘small data’ social media post analysis, possibly using discourse analysis or a similar framework. This approach addresses concerns brought up by attendees such as picking up sarcasm and irony, which ‘big data’ software doesn’t always do.

Farida Vis of the University of Sheffield was next, talking about her work in researching social media images. Of particular interest to me was her point about a shift from the traditional media studies-based communication model of ‘production-message-reception’ to ‘structures-users-content’ with the structures being the structures of social media platforms and their ability to determine how information is presented (e.g. Twitter’s 140 characters). In my PhD I am looking at social media as a medium for performance of expertise, and there is a lot to be explored there in terms of how social media is structured and its relationship with users, which Farida stresses is very important – more research needs to be done on social media and the individual.

She then talked about her project Reading the Riots which received a lot of backlash with regard to ethics because the social media posts used were not anonymised. However, those Tweets were ‘public’ and the debate about public tweets and privacy in research was a prevalent one at this conference, which is another point my research is considering.

Sanjay Sharma (who happens to be speaking at a BCMCR research seminar next month) talked about his research into the #notracist hashtag as an example of an ambient hashtag which never trends, but bubbles away in the background. Sanjay said this hashtag is legitimising casual racism on Twitter, with people using #notracist instead of saying ‘I’m not racist, but…’ Sanjay raised concerns about privacy when looking at tweets like this which are controversial. Sanjay addresses this by blurring people’s picture and Twitter name, and slightly altering the text in the tweet so it cannot be altered. For me, who is taking a qualitative approach to Twitter analysis, text altering needs to be done very carefully so as not to radically alter the meaning of a tweet.

No matter how controversial or offensive people are being, there was a general consensus at this conference that people’s privacy still needs to be protected. This was echoed in Anne Burns’ great talk about her research, also about social media images and particularly the ‘Picturing the Social’ project, for which I attended the launch conference last year. Anne is interested in what social media practice can tell us about people and the ways in which this can be conceptualised. She has focused particularly on ‘selfies’ and ‘revenge porn’ in her research and she flagged up important questions in this talk about harm and privacy. For example with regards to revenge porn, how do you define harm in this context? Other social media users are the ones causing harm, what can the researcher do about this to protect the victims? Should the perpetrators be protected too even though they are causing harm?

ethicsAnne also talked about the public/private debate. She argued that sharing is becoming a social norm (which Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg wants to encourage as much as possible) yet at the same time people are still very concerned about privacy, and this presents a problem for researchers. What also needs to be considered are the different ethical considerations for not only individuals, but also groups and organisations. She finished her talk by suggesting that there are no straightforward answers to the ethical concerns of social media research, but what is required is a reflexive approach, and to treat the research process as a series of ethical questions. I think this is the best way to approach such a muddy area, and though more questions were raised than answered, events like this are important for discussing these issues and sharing ideas.

The main image above is from Anne’s final slide, which lists some current and potentially useful literature on social media research.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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