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Mining Twitter and Informed Consent

This week ten new media theorists and ethicists attempted to answer a question about the necessity of acquiring informed consent while doing social scientific research about user-participants of social media sites such as Twitter. The line of questioning started at the 2010 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and spilled out onto Michael Zimmer’s Facebook page. Zimmer considers Tweets private and consent necessary while others disagree. I reproduce the Facebook dialogue in full to make a point I will follow-up on later. Facebook ‘Mutual Friends’ form a cultural grouping unfolding in candid real time experiments. Exchanges like this are instrumental both because they address a serious and misunderstood facet of new media social research and as a sample of a reflective public working out theory in real time. The question regarding the ethics of ‘following’ ones informants is particularly important for someone interested in mixed methods of doing social research. And as social media proliferate, the ethical and utilitarian question of whether to ‘friend’ your informant—and whether the information you then glean from that virtual ‘friendship’ can be considered legitimately collected data—will increasingly be pertinent to anthropologists studying other forms of actual (as compared to virtual) sociality. Zimmer was kind enough to track down the consents of all discussants. My sincere thanks go out the participants for consenting to having your ideas posted here.

Michael Zimmer Do researchers need to get informed consent to follow a Twitter account for research purposes? #cscw2010
Yesterday at 8:40am via Twitter · Comment · Like

Thomas D. Walker Well, Stalker, if the account holder tweets to the general public, then it’d seem like there’s no expectation of privacy so no consent would be necessary.
Yesterday at 9:06am

Michael Zimmer But isn’t my expectation that even though my tweets are public, they’re often lost in a sea of hundreds of tweets among my followers, and I never anticipated someone would archive, mine, and perform research on them?
Yesterday at 9:12am

Thomas D. Walker If you’re comfortable with your anonymity being guaranteed only by virtue of your public tweets being hidden in plain sight among millions of others, then you’d have to realize that some determined person could follow just yours, archive them, and analyze them. I like my privacy, but I don’t worry about walking around a city or campus even though …
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Yesterday at 9:19am

Wyatt Ditzler I posed the same question tithe author of a poster next to mine at the iConference. She was analyzing tweets from Maldova. She presented the same argument as Tom. I followed up by asking he I she felt there was an ethical issue with her work, but again the public nature argument was her response.
Yesterday at 9:41am

Nicole Ellison Also depends on how data are being presented – e.g. in aggregate vs specific “quotes” that could easily be traced.
Yesterday at 11:40am

Rebecca Tushnet Many IRBs would say yes, or at least would require you to get a waiver–publicizing the extremes to which IRBs go is my husband’s mission in life. You can check out what he has to say at the Institutional Review Blog, http://www.institutionalreviewblog.com/
Yesterday at 5:09pm

Lorraine Kisselburgh Short answers — IRB application is required. You could request that Informed consent be waived with the argument that you are only analyzing tweets broadcast publicly, and that you de-identify your data to eliminate potential risk to the individual. Note: IRB interpretations vary widely (though they are arms of federal regulations), so this is the midwest R1 likely interpretation. Keep me posted on how you approach!
Yesterday at 8:45pm

Jeremy Hunsinger I would say if it is for research and you are dealing only with publicly available documents, then no, you need no consent. you can run that by the irb and get a waiver, but in the end, you are dealing with publicly available documents… not people, subjects. If you are dealing with subjects and not documents, then you will need irb clearance.
6 hours ago

Siva Vaidhyanathan Tweets are publications. I think it’s absurd to even consider IRB review for anything dealing with things people have published.
3 hours ago

Lorraine Kisselburgh The questions are: 1) Are you conducting research that is intended to be published; 2) Does your research involved human participants; 3) For these human participants, will you gather data through intervention or interaction with the individual; and/or will you gather identifiable private information about them. (45 CFR 46.102(f))
If these 3 …
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3 hours ago

Erin Hvizdak Rather than relying on IRB review (and the likely subsequent waiver) and applying existing research ethics guidelines/laws as they are to Internet research, I think it’s important to consider where these guidelines or IRB review might fail, especially in terms of expectation of privacy (does the user fully understand the public nature of their …
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2 hours ago

Jeremy Hunsinger If i download all of Michael’s published papers, blog posts, twitter posts and each one he publishes thereafter… are they the same? or different? I’d argue the same, just for different audiences.
about an hour ago

Michael Zimmer What if tomorrow, I decide to take my Tweet stream private. And I delete my blog posts. Does my affirmative action to purge my documents from the “live” web mean that you (researcher) need to treat that previously archived material differently?
about an hour ago

Michael Zimmer @ Siva: Re tweets as publications, does this extend to any utterance? Is public speaking a publication?
about an hour ago

Lorraine Kisselburgh @ Erin. All fine points worthy of discussion, but MZ’s question was pragmatic not philosophical (I think). If you do research that SHOULD have been reviewed by IRB and is NOT, your research program can be shut down, at least at universities that must follow US federal guidelines.
about an hour ago

Lorraine Kisselburgh @ Michael. If the individual changes their intent regarding release of data, then by IRB standards what might previously have been considered publicly available information, then becomes private information, and your collection would likely require BOTH IRB review AND informed consent, b/c the user now has an expectation that their information is protected.
about an hour ago

Jeremy Hunsinger well, tons of people probably have my twitter and facebook data that i made private last month, granted they have little after last month, but before then they have all of it. I would argue that before last month i had no expectation or need of privacy, but after i learned a certain fellow was being somewhat inhospitable with my data i closed it off so he couldn’t easily get it. so… given that they have my old data, can they use it, sure. do they need consent for new data, probably.
about an hour ago

Jeremy Hunsinger However, they could just get my data from company also, and then they would not need my consent, because of the agreement that i have with twitter.
about an hour ago

Lorraine Kisselburgh @ Jeremy1 — Yes, agreed. I didn’t catch the nuance MZ made on whether it changes the status of the previous data. I’d say not, but definitely for all future data.
@ Jeremy2 — Data through 3rd party….IRB will generally request a copy of the terms of agreement between user and 3rd party from whom you are getting the data, making it clear the user agreed to release of information.
about an hour ago

Jeremy Hunsinger Yes, had a big discussion at OIISDP on this jeremy2 topic with Ralph Schroeder and Bernie Hogan, I hold the same position as you there, though Ralph holds a different position, that still requires individual clearance if the data can identify the individual, at least that is my understanding. He was arguing that there is a research ethics above the contract there as i recall. Fun stuff, i’m one of the many co-authors of the aoir guide that Erin mentioned.
about an hour ago

Lorraine Kisselburgh [OMISSION] I agree with Ralph’s higher standards, but was trying to answer the question specific to what IRB requires. Again, this is all dependent upon local interpretations, as IRB committees and chairs still vary quite a bit. [OMISSION] I’ve authored some work on IRB processes for another research area I’m in (Org Com) concerning global and cultural differences in research ethics and practices. [OMISSION]

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about an hour ago

Michael Zimmer If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short time examining this larger area of inquiry, it’s that there is regularly a large gulf between an IRB’s ruleset (and even its mandate) and “ethical” research, per se.
58 minutes ago

Nicole Ellison Michael, Was your original question about whether IRBs would want to approve this data collection (which I’m sure will differ by institution) or whether we think they should have oversight?
52 minutes ago

Lorraine Kisselburgh Well….local interpretations are constantly governed by the philosophical question of what constitutes ethical practices of research. [OMISSION] But practically, IRB is governed most strictly by what federal guidelines require….which do continue to evolve as a result of developing research practices and issues, and at the core attempt to remain true to the principle of ethical standards of research. 52 minutes ago

Jeremy Hunsinger Well there is also a large gulf between what each ethical theory can justify as ethical, and then another gulf between that and what lay-people think is ethical.
52 minutes ago

Siva Vaidhyanathan A publication is fixed in a tangible medium of exchange.
48 minutes ago

Siva Vaidhyanathan IRB processes impede social science, humanities, history, and journalism research and academic freedom when misapplied to adults in public roles or forums. There is no reason why IRB review should be required for oral histories of adults. Rules about anonymity etc. stifle history and journalism. We need a complete overhaul of the system which treats everyone like children.
44 minutes ago
Lorraine Kisselburgh @Thomas and @MZ…..we’ve started another strain I think. First, does publish = public? Are all publications (or utterances) by default for a public audience? And second, once public, can one retract, erase, rewind, or redefine one’s intent? [OMISSION]


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I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

5 thoughts on “Mining Twitter and Informed Consent


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    Michael Zimmer says:

    Thanks for sharing this with your community of researchers, Adam.

    One point of clarification: I don’t think I said that I consider tweets to be “private” per se, but rather than in the context of making them public, I’m not convinced that subjects consented for them to be automatically harvested.


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    Jenny Cool says:

    Yes, thanks, Adam! Your post and informants really effectively raise and frame some key questions facing social science researchers who work on networked media. The ethical, legal, and utilitarian dimensions are keenly highlighted in the Facebook exchange you document, but other dimensions, such as disciplinary approach, are mostly implicit. What “can be considered legitimately collected data” strikes me as a matter of disciplinary approach. This makes the question of mixed methods you raise a tricky one.

    Whether one tends toward a broad or narrow interpretation of informed consent, I think networked media presents some new, or newly common, challenges. Temporal aspects of these media (persistence, as well as mutability and ephemerality)—touched on in Michael Zimmer’s example of taking a previously public stream private—shape expectations of privacy; and change the practicalities of individual identifiability. While human subjects might change their minds and settings, the persistence of data released into the stream looms large, not least of all in the mediating presence of third parties.

    In my research, I study people but also their documents, which include utterances (Tweets, web pages, chat transcripts, mailing lists, blogs) as well as trails (server logs, user stats, metadata). I look at these as lived social phenomena, as occasioned speech or action, which persist as artifacts long after their occasion has passed.

    While my own approach in taking, keeping, and writing about informant- and system-produced data has been to seek informed consent, I recognize this isn’t practical for every researcher or study. So, it’s great these issues raised here.


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    Douglas W. Boone says:

    A conference is planned in Berlin at the end of March: “The international conference on Qualitative Research in Web 2.0/3.0 (QRWEB2010)”

    Theme: “Tackling issues and opportunities of integrating Web 2.0/3.0 into qualitative research”

    Among the topics is “Assessing ethical and practical dangers of research using social media”.

    Conference Website
    http://www.merlien.org/upcoming-events/qrweb2010.html


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    Zachary Schrag says:

    You may be interested in the latest draft of Canada’s “Tri-Council Policy Statement, chapter 10”:
    http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/eng/policy-politique/initiatives/revised-revisee/chapter10-chapitre10/

    “REB review is also not required where research uses exclusively publicly available information that may contain identifiable information, and for which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.For example, identifiable information may be disseminated in the public domain through print or electronic publications, film, audio, or digital recordings, press accounts, official publications of private or public institutions, artistic installations, exhibitions, or literary events freely open to the public, or publications accessible in public libraries. Research that is non-intrusive, does not involve direct interaction between the researcher and individuals through the Internet medium, is not required to obtain REB review. Cyber-material such as documents, records, performances, online archival materials or published third-party interviews to which the public is given uncontrolled access on the Internet for which there is no expectation of privacy is considered to be publicly available information.”


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    zachary Schrag says:

    You may be interested in the latest draft of Canada’s “Tri-Council Policy Statement, Article 2.3”:
    http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/eng/policy-politique/initiatives/revised-revisee/chapter2-chapitre2/#toc02-1a/

    “REB review is also not required where research uses exclusively publicly available information that may contain identifiable information, and for which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.For example, identifiable information may be disseminated in the public domain through print or electronic publications, film, audio, or digital recordings, press accounts, official publications of private or public institutions, artistic installations, exhibitions, or literary events freely open to the public, or publications accessible in public libraries. Research that is non-intrusive, does not involve direct interaction between the researcher and individuals through the Internet medium, is not required to obtain REB review. Cyber-material such as documents, records, performances, online archival materials or published third-party interviews to which the public is given uncontrolled access on the Internet for which there is no expectation of privacy is considered to be publicly available information.”

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