Coronavirus information and guidance

Social media research

Social media is increasingly used as a platform for recruiting and interacting with research participants or collecting research data about users. 

When planning or seeking ethical approval for research using social media, researchers should read this guidance and consider the issues raised. Any issues or points relevant to your specific project, and any actions you will take as a result, should be described in your ethical review application form (Word).

Note that although social media data may be widely available and easily accessible, this does not mean research involving social media data is without legal or ethical issue. Collection of social media data originating from humans always requires ethical review. 

If  social media if being used to collect information or data relating to (or requiring interaction with) extremist or terrorist groups or material, researchers should also complete a Security-sensitive or extremism-related research declaration (SSER). 

Introduction

Social media and social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram are used by billions of people and as such have provided “new resources for researchers seeking to explore, observe, and measure human opinions, activities and interactions” (Zimmer and Kinder-Kurlanda 2017). At the same time, it is important to understand how such sites work and to be aware of the ethical pitfalls that may arise in their use.

Social media posts may be persistent and may reach a larger audience than intended. The public, persistent and pervasive nature of social network sites has led to several research controversies involving their use:

  • Researchers from a UK University helped a political consulting firm to repurpose psychometric information gathered via Facebook “personality tests”. This research was conducted even though the researchers ethics application was rejected by their University ethics committee (Weaver 2018).
  • A Facebook study used social media to investigate the spread of emotions (“emotional contagion”) without the consent or even the knowledge of the social media users (Flick 2016).
  • A study investigated whether it is possible to predict sexual orientation from images posted to online dating websites, partly because of the “lower cost (from the perspective of both the participants and researchers)”, although participants were not informed (Wang and Kosinski 2018).
  • Research may have exposed the identity of participants in Hong Kong’s “Umbrella” protests, showing that sometimes it may not be practical or even ethical to identify participants -  leading researchers to ask 'how can we balance protestors’ rights versus the rights of researchers?' (Tromble and Stockmann 2017)