Wednesday, 22 May 2013

How private is Facebook?

This post was written by Kelsey Beninger of NatCen Social Research and was first published on the organisation's blog.


Social media is constantly evolving. It’s not surprising that even the most diligent social networkers struggle to keep abreast of how changes affect the information they share. This is particularly true of Facebook. I’ve heard colleagues and friends say, ‘at least what you write on Facebook is private - only your friends can see it.’

A Northern Irish High Court disagrees.

In a recent case, the court allowed a document posted to the defendant’s Facebook account to be included as evidence despite demands by the defendant that it was confidential information. Information posted, even if meant only for friends and in a closed group, was considered to be done in full knowledge that those friends could forward the information at which point it enters the public domain. From here the principle of confidentiality has no application.

While this new case law is not legally binding in England it is quite persuasive. It raises a whole slew of ethical and methodological concerns already flagged in the field of social media research.

Social media represents an untapped wealth of opportunity for social researchers. But there’s a lack of understanding of privacy principles and confidentiality, which undermines informed consent. Academics and practitioners are hot on the trail of these debates, like the work of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) and the Cardiff Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS), and our own network of methodological and cross-discipline innovation, New Social Media, New Social Science.

Often what’s missing from this conversation is the views of users. How do they curate their digital lives? What do they understand about how their information is used and shared on the internet? What do they think about their information being used in social media research?

To better understand this, we’re launching an in depth study next month exploring what the public think about the use of their information from social media platforms for research. We will use the findings to help inform principles of best practice for researchers to make sure they act responsibly and in line with the views of the public when conducting online research.

Until then, think twice about how you use your social media accounts.

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