As part of the “Conditions for Consent to analyze Social Media data” project within CaSMa, we have recently launched a survey to ask for your views about the type of information you would want to have before participating in social media research.
Willing consent from all parties involved in a transaction is generally accepted to be a corner stone in the foundation of ethical behavior, no matter if the interaction is of a personal (e.g. sex), professional (e.g. participation as research subject) or public (e.g. being quoted in the media) nature¹. And yet, when dealing with research, or any other interactions online, the mere facts that the interaction is mediated by machines appears to blur this fundamental concept in people’s minds.
The seemingly endless procession of controversies like the Facebook news-feed manipulation experiment, the Samsung Smart TV ‘Telescreen’ debacle, the Samaritans Radar turmoil, etc. appear to suggest that properly informed consent may well be one of the most violated principles online. This impression was further reinforced by the findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Responsible Use of Data which strongly criticized the Terms & Conditions of website and apps as too difficult to understand, expressed concerns about the amount of personal data that is being collected, which often does not appear to be necessary for an app or service to function, and generally called for greater transparency towards users.
Even within the academic community, where the need for ethically sound research practices is fully endorsed, there is confusion regarding the need for informed consent when doing internet mediated research. Is explicit consent required when using publicly accessible data (e.g. public tweets)? What determines the publicness of communications on a social media platform, is it the policy of the platform provider or is it the way in which people are using the platform? If explicit consent is sought from participants, how and when should this be done? How might the consent process affect the balance in the obtained data set? These are all important and valid questions which are being discussed. Unfortunately much of these discussions tend to veer towards theoretical considerations based on hypotheses about the interests and concerns that citizens might have. With a certain sense of irony one might observe that such discussions appear to treat research participants as abstract variables rather than individuals that have a voice of their own. The goal of our survey therefore is to include the public in forming a clearer picture of the kinds of conditions that they would like to have met in order to consent to having their data used for research purposes.
Please follow the link to our survey and give us your views.
¹ Yes there are exceptional cases where ‘the benefit to the public good’ may outweigh the ’needs of the few, or the one’, but the needs for this must be clearly shown. Obtaining of willing informed consent is considered the default requirement.