With the rapid growth of social media outlets, its users have willfully shared personal information, most often unaware that in doing so they have allowed what they considered private to become public. Researchers interested in tapping into this information may ethically consider informed consent as a critical component of their scholarly work.
Many social media users have not been aware that, while able to control the visibility of their profiles from particular audiences, a large amount of their information and online behavior can be accessed by a plethora of third parties. As users begin to understand what has happened to the information they have shared, they face the decision to remain in or withdraw from social media outlets. Removing themselves, however, represents letting go of the many social benefits they have taken advantage of, have learned to rely on, and dearly appreciate.
It is true that social media outlets have brought people together across time and space: some have been able to reconnect with family members who reside overseas while others have maintained or rekindled their childhood friendships. In addition, social media has also united people with common professional and political interests, building brands and developing activism. This is, indeed, what social media outlets promised its users- the possibility to unite.
However, unity does not always assure progress. Through social media, the opportunity to limit our networks is easily at hand and we are encouraged by social media outlets to take it. In doing so, we limit our exposure to points of view that differ from ours. We do not allow ourselves to teach and learn from one another. We do not submit to another’s point of view. We do not take responsibility for what is said. We do not discern what another person is thinking or feeling. We do not consider irrational realities and painful truths.
By limiting our own networks and by receiving information that is tailored to our behavior, our understanding of the world becomes restricted. Part of making social media more social is accepting that we learn from those who think differently from us. To achieve this, we need to engage with the world and all its variety, its diversity, its complexity, its irrationality. Social media instead, as it stands now, restricts our opportunity to face the world as it is and learn from one another. We are asked to share what we think without learning how to think about what we say. We are asked to share content with others, without understanding the true content of others. With that in mind, as researchers analyze social media data, they need to consider not only the inner workings of these outlets but understand the importance of seeking informed consent from social media users.
On one end, researchers should reflect on the frameworks and controls that exist within social media outlets, which regulate how content moves across the platforms. We know, for example, that content shown to people on many social media outlets is filtered and targeted to feed their interests. Many times, content with erroneous information is widely shared because it feeds into the particular beliefs of individuals. On the other hand, the removal of content, which does not mean to be violent or spread hate, is frequent under a system that constantly fails to accurately regulate what people say. Perhaps, only people are able to regulate one another, not algorithms and artificial intelligence. Before researchers access the data provided by social media, they must understand how that data came to be and under what circumstances it is allowed to exist. They need to understand what data was erased from the system, what data was ignored within the system, what data is not able to be retrieved by the system, what data was manipulated by what entities, what data has been misused or abused and for what purposes, what data was duplicated or impersonated, what data is reported and which is not, what statistical errors may there be when presented with this data, what questions does this data actually answer, how do we validate and replicate the results drawn from this data, etc. Researchers may want to reflect on the ways in which they can unintentionally reach manipulated, inexact and false results when delving into a dataset whose formation and regulation they do not fully understand.
On the other end, researchers must keep in mind informed consent and anonymity. First, some users are not aware that their content is indeed public, others’ views on what they have posted on social media may have changed, and many others do not know and may disapprove of the extents to which their data is being used. Second, many times, data that is picked ignores the context in which it was originally presented. Other times, data is picked and, with it, the identity of the individual who created it, without keeping in mind how presenting their data onto new and unexpected audiences may harm the individual. All in all, researchers may want to prioritize documentation and validation of data, by understanding how it is documented and validated within the social media outlets themselves. While researchers strive for new discoveries, they need to pause and understand the unexpected factors that go into the aggregation of this data, which manipulate the data itself.