The University has produced these guidelines as part of a commitment to the highest standards of research, underpinned by the quality of the research process, providing a framework through which those involved in the research process can address the ethical implications of utilising social media data in research. Social media as a research tool and data source presents new opportunities for researchers, but also new challenges which require careful consideration throughout the lifetime of the project. The University recognises the difficulty with producing a set of definitive rules, which may become out of date as technology changes. As such, these guidelines provide advice on factors for consideration when using social media content in research, as well as setting out the position of the University on key issues.
When contemplating a research project making use of social media, the main guiding principle to consider is the same as with offline research – the avoidance of harm. In terms of social media data specifically, the University understands social media users as human participants. The University places trust in the ability of researchers to assess their own work, with assistance from colleagues and subject-level ethics committees where relevant, to identify where ethical review is necessary, and provide guidance where needed. It is strongly advised that researchers spend time getting to know the social media platform they intend to use, both in terms of policies and culture. Importantly, however, the culture of platforms must not override the University’s ethical framework.
Research making use of social media is a wide-ranging field, and so will be guided by a variety of considerations. This guidance explores five of the most prominent issues noted in social media research. These are: legal considerations, duty of care, data integrity and management, privacy, and consent. The key elements of each area are summarised below.
Legal considerations refer to (a) the Terms and Conditions of a platform, and (b) legislation surrounding GDPR and data protection. All research at York must be conducted in compliance with legal and regulatory frameworks; this is, however, a complex and potentially difficult area to map out with regard to social media data. Researchers must have a working knowledge of the Terms and Conditions of any social media platforms or apps they use, and be mindful of potential legal issues.
Potential issues can arise when negotiating with social media companies and platforms. Such groups may wish to limit or control access to data and subsequent narratives, and researchers must consider throughout the impact this has on the research they produce and their academic freedom to do so. If you intend to negotiate with platforms or companies in order to access data, please contact the Research & Knowledge Exchange Contracts Team. Information generated by, on, and for social media networks may be personal data if the user can be reasonably identified, and the University Data Protection team is available to assist with clarifications. Researchers must familiarise themselves with the requirements of GDPR, and ensure compliance.
In line with our commitment to the avoidance of harm, social media researchers should consider their duty of care to those involved in the research process. With social media research, this most often refers to potential harm towards participants, researchers, and the wider community. Particular consideration must be paid to the welfare and interests of vulnerable individuals, although it should be recognised that identifying vulnerability is a complex process on social media. It is important to note that studies taking place through social media may find it difficult to effectively debrief participants or ensure appropriate care following research. Researchers should consider how best to mitigate this risk, and ensure that social media research is in the best interests of both the research project and its participants. When dealing with such data, it is good practice to seek consent where quoting directly, or to paraphrase, and, where there are high levels of potential risk, consider whether social media is the best method of data collection.
Specific consideration must be given to the potential for data to be supplied by underage individuals. Researchers should consider ways in which this can be addressed – researchers are not expected to completely eliminate every risk, but must mitigate as far as possible, and be aware of shortcomings or potential issues.
Social media data can be difficult to verify – users may lie about their age, location, job, or any number of other characteristics. Researchers must be aware of this issue and address this difficulty where relevant. It is not advisable to understand users as the ‘general public’, due to inequalities in access to the internet, and researchers should consider how to foster diversity (where relevant) in their sample.
Researchers must refer to the University policy on Research Data Management to ensure such data is handled in line with regulations. Completion of a Data Management Plan will help researchers think through this process, and identify potential concerns. The completion of a Data Protection Impact Assessment is recommended and in many cases will be necessary, particularly when planning to monitor a ‘public’ space (see next section) on a large scale.
In order to conduct research ethically, it is important to consider the extent to which users believe a website or app is private, alongside the ‘reality’ of the site as a public place. Certain forums or groups, for example, may technically be free to access and openly available, but the members and contributors could still feel violated if their data and comments were used without consent. It is important to be aware that material from social media platforms may be easily searchable, therefore making users identifiable and potentially putting them in a vulnerable position. The data collected and stored should be proportionate to the needs of the study, and specific guidance regarding how and when to anonymise data must be sought from the relevant ethics committee in the first instance – please be aware there may also be journal-specific policies that must be adhered to.
When considering consent from an ethical standpoint, researchers should take into account, among other factors:
Importantly, the simple act of agreeing to the Terms and Conditions of a website does not constitute informed consent, as it cannot be ensured participants have fully read or understood the agreement.
Low-risk research involving no direct contact with participants or personal details may not require informed consent. Research using social media data has the potential to fall into these categories; such situations must, however, be fully justified, and are not exempt from the requirement of ethical review to ensure this is the case.
Researchers shall take time to consider how withdrawal works in the context of social media research – does deleting a post, for example, count as withdrawing data? Could a researcher realistically become aware of this, and how? Similarly, there is a risk with social media research that individuals may be difficult to contact, or may not respond when contact has been made. Researchers must have clearly defined processes on how they seek consent and become aware of, and adjust to, possible withdrawal of data from the project.
These guidelines do not aim to restrict topics or areas of study, and the University recognises the potential value of social media data and content; such resources must, however, be used effectively and ethically. Subject level Ethics Committees should remain the first point of contact when seeking ethical approval, and queries shall be addressed to these in the first instance.
These guidelines apply to all those undertaking research under the University’s auspices as defined in the Code of Practice on Research Integrity. This guidance sits alongside other policies within the University, including the Policy on Research Data Management, the Policy and Procedure for the Investigation of Allegations of Research Misconduct. This guidance is also informed by existing guidance within the sector. Researchers should ensure familiarity with applicable University policy, including that governing the ethical review process – importantly, ethical approval must be in place prior to beginning any research.
Examples given in the following guidance are simply for the purpose of illustrating principles. All research conducted under the auspices of the University of York must undergo appropriate ethical review and be assessed individually as set out in the Code of Practice and Principles for Good Ethical Governance.
 This list is not exclusive, and researchers should ensure they have familiarised themselves with the full range of University policy prior to beginning research.
 See Appendix 2 ‘Further Reading’.