Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Why design matters in social media research ethics

Curtis Jessop is a Senior Researcher at NatCen Social Research and is the Network Lead for the NSMNSS network

I’m playing catch-up a little bit here, but thought I’d share some thoughts on a presentation from Professor Woodrow Hartzog (slides here) at an ethics symposium I attended on 19th July hosted by the Web Science Institute.

The presentation focussed on the ethics of how our data are collected online, arguing that insufficient attention is paid to the design of information technology. Giving a number of examples of how IT had failed ethically at a design stage, Professor Hartzog challenged the idea that ‘there are no bad technologies, only bad users’, asserting that there is no such thing as neutral design.

Following this thought, he suggested that the principle of giving users control (e.g. over privacy settings) does not reflect how people actually use technology and can be overwhelming (managing all settings for all accounts), or even manipulated to disguise/protect true intentions. This principle puts too much onus on the user, when the responsibility should lie with the designers.

I think this is an under-considered area in ethics of social media research. When we think about ‘data collection’, we are more likely to think about how we get the data out of its original context, but there is of course a stage before that: when the data was collected by the original platform. As researchers we are unlikely to have control over the design of our ‘data source’, but to what extent should we be considering it?

My second thought was that a lot of these principles translate over to research ethics – the design of a methodology is not neutral, and giving research participants control is not necessarily sufficient (or appropriate). As researchers the onus should be on us to ensure the design is ethically sound and protects the participant’s interests.

Overall, this event felt to me more rooted in data science than social science; in the advance materials I received for this event, it was suggested that ‘Principles of informed consent and anonymity in this environment are no longer the answer’ and I can’t say I’m convinced of that. However, given the often necessarily inter-disciplinary nature of social media research, it is important that these perspectives are included and this did give me plenty to think about.


I should also say that the second keynote given by Professor Mireille Hildebrandt (slides here) which looked at the ethics of data-sharing through philosophical and legal lenses was excellent, as was the panel discussion in between. For more information on the event, have a look here, and there are a couple of other blogs from the event here and here

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