After the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal following the 2016 United States presidential election, public conversation has revolved around appropriate uses of social media data across domains, including academic research.
The collection of user-generated data from social media can blur the line of what constitutes human subjects research. While this data is generally considered beyond the purview of institutional review boards, users are often disconcerted by the lax approach to their data. A recent study surveyed active US Facebook users about their perspective on social media data use in academic research.
Results indicate that the purpose of data collection mattered to people: while health science-focused research was viewed as an appropriate use of social media data, gender studies, computer science, and psychology research was not. This may indicate that fields seen as “more political” could experience backlash regarding data collection. Post content and context were also relevant, with participants rating public comments about food or science as more appropriate for collection than posts about more personal topics made in groups or sent via private message. Users also indicated that research which sought their consent was less concerning, and that research used for service improvements rather than knowledge generation was more appropriate.
These findings suggest that the discipline and purpose of the research, the kind of data collected, and the subjects’ awareness of the research affected how users assessed the appropriateness of the data collection. Researchers should be cognizant of these preferences when conducting research to help ease subject anxiety, promote public scholarship, and use context-informed methods in their studies.