17 September 2010

Social Media and Ethics

Social Media and Ethics: "

Whilst at the recent ESOMAR Congress in Athens I created a vignette in my mind to help explain the many issues that can arise. Consider the following hypothetical example:

In Facebook I discover the “ACME TV and Video” page which has a wide variety of posts on it from people who use or like or are interested in ACME TVs and ACME videos. Because I do not want to keep visiting the site I create a script in my favourite web scraper to log in every day and to collect all new posts and to put them in a database for me.

For my client, a major electronics company based in the US, I produce a report, based on social media, looking at the different social contexts of the consumers home electronics. I note within this ACME page a 200 word poem written by a member of the page who writes about how her neighbour’s 8 year old daughter is often left at home on her own and uses the TV to feel less alone and lonely.

In my report I include a copy of the poem and I mention that it is taken from the ACME TV page. However, in order to protect the 'respondent anonymity', I change her name to some fictitious name.

So, what’s wrong with any of that? Well let’s count some of the ways that come readily to mind as potential problems.


  1. By using a web scraper to collect data from Facebook I have broken the terms and conditions of my use of Facebook.

  2. By using material for Facebook for my commercial research I may have further broken the terms and condition that I signed up to when I joined Facebook.

  3. If the person I collected the data from was under 16 (according to the UK MRS rules) then I have collected data from a child without prior parental permission.

  4. By not quoting the author of the post I have broken many conventions about properly citing and crediting sources.

  5. By quoting the poem in its entirety, without permission and without citing I may have breached copyright issues.

  6. By using a literal quote I may have made it possible for the author to be identified. Because I have named the group the client could use a web scraper to load all recent posts and then search for the text in the report.

  7. Not only may I have compromised the anonymity of the author, but if they post photos, if they have not protected their profile, I may have provided access to personal information such as mobile phone number.

  8. Because I may have identified the author, I may also have identified the existence and identity a vulnerable child left alone.

  9. Because the data is personally identifiable it falls under (in the UK) under the Data Protection Act, which means I need to hold it securely, and I can’t simply send it overseas to the US which has a different set of legal protections.


I am sure there are other problems that people can highlight, but I hope that the vignette will help illustrate that when we are working inside the area of social media we need to be very careful and we need to think about what we are doing.

In thinking about social media we need to think about: laws, terms and conditions, market research ethics, and other relevant codes, practices, and expectations. The general concept of informed consent will still provide a good guide, but we need to be clear about whose consent and how we ensure that it is informed consent.

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