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Ethics of Twitter Research

Kate Thomson, Faculty of Health, Birmingham City University @KateT_Health
Image: Social network graph of @mention relationships in a Twitter corpus. Analysing Social Media Collaboration

Introduction: Twitter launched in 2006 as a microblogging Research Example 1 : Reading the Riots
The Reading the Riots project on the summer 2011 disturbances included an analysis of UK Twitter use over the period (Procter et al, 2012). The patterns revealed offered useful insights into attitudes towards the riots, and the role that social media played in them. This is an example of primarily quantitative analysis, that harvests a vast number of tweets within a specific timeframe. Findings on trends, topics, locations and networks may be aggregated and visualised (see above, right). Ethical issues: alongside aggregated information, the project had a content analysis element, and identified tweets that were influential (highly shared /retweeted: see image below). This may raise concerns about the repurposing of tweets for research, but not strictly about confidentiality, as authors/ usernames are not shown. Popular tweets are perhaps unambiguously in the public domain.

service. In March 2012, Twitter claimed over 140 million active users, with 340 million tweets sent every day (Wasserman 2012). The platform has rapidly become a key domain for both generating and broadcasting news and events,, as evidenced by its frequent referencing by the mainstream media. As a prominent contemporary phenomenon, Twitter is of inevitable interest to academic researchers, both as a phenomenon in itself (a network, or imagined community); and as a medium for accessing and generating data for analysis. Three overlapping dimensions of Twitter that are of interest in considering research ethics, are reviewed in this poster.

Temporal dimension: Are Tweets permanent?

The temporal nature of Twitter is best characterised by fleeting permanence. Twitter has immediacy, exemplifying the presentism of the internet age: only things that are happening now are what matters (Gruzd et al 2011). The user experiences a streaming format where new messages constantly displace older ones.. However, there is potentiality for permanence. All tweets have a URL (unique resource locator) allowing them to be permanently linked, for example from other websites. Secondly, while users may delete tweets from their timeline (and that of their followers), this does not ensure that they die. As a number of public scandals have demonstrated, screenshots of offensive or embarrassing tweets can ensure that they live on. Deleted tweets are unlikely to be retrospectively removed from any archived corpus already stored by researchers. Despite the technical permanence of tweets, harvesting, archiving and using a tweet in published research raise ethical dilemmas. Such actions give the tweet a lifespan far beyond the fleeting presence that might normally be expected by its author.

Research example 3: Pandemics -Infodemiology

Chew and Eysenbach (2010) archived over 2m tweets containing key words relating to H1N1 (swine flu), over an 8month period in 2009 to analyse the dissemination and generation of information /news on the pandemic. They observed patterns in volume and changes in prevalence of key words over the period. A sub-sample of tweets was subjected to content analysis in the areas of content (example classifications: opinion, resources, jokes), tone (e.g. humour, relief, anxiety) and links (e.g. news sites, government). Ethical issues: the published research contains mainly aggregated, quantitative findings,. Examples of anonymised tweets are given in the content analysis tables. There is no discussion of confidentiality and anonymity, or of, the possible intrusion involved in manually analysing thousands of individual tweets. These were harvested legitimately (in the legal sense) using a similar process to that used by commercial companies.

Spatial dimension: Are Tweets in the public domain?

Analysis of texts that are in the public domain (e.g. newspapers, official reports, websites and blogs) is not generally regarded as ethically contentious, and would not normally require ethical review. Unless Twitter users protect their accounts, tweets are viewable and searchable by the general public. Twitter influence is measured in numbers of mentions and retweets, which potentially broadcast a message beyond a users existing followers. Arguably, as users appreciate that Twitter is a public platform , using the utterances they place there is ethically unproblematic. However, users may have differing expectations about the privacy of their tweets. If a users normal experience is that their words will be shared within a relatively constrained group of friends (followers) , close attention from an uninvited researcher is potentially intrusive (Vieweg 2012; Zimmer 2010).

Summary: Twitter offers rich opportunities for research Cognitive dimension: Is it authentic?
Twitter research may be conducted on naturally occurring, or purposely generated, tweets. Both raise questions of ethics and authenticity. Authenticity Naturally-occurring tweets Tweets generated for research Yes Focus-dependent Ethical access Difficult Possible
Chew C, Eysenbach G (2010) Pandemics in the Age of Twitter: Content Analysis of Tweets during the 2009 H1N1 Outbreak. PLoS ONE 5(11): e14118. Gruzd, A., Wellman, B. and Takhteyev, Y. (2011) Imagining Twitter as an imagined community, American Behavioral Scientist 55, 10: 1294-1318

From Procter et al (2012)

across disciplinary boundaries. There are a number of features of the platform that raise interesting dilemmas for ethical practice. Some published Twitter research neglects to discuss these issues or clearly outline decisions made in the areas of confidentiality and autonomy of the individuals who generated the data. Of particular interest are the assumptions potentially created by viewing Twitter unproblematically as a public platform.

Research example 2: The imagined audience

Marwick and boyd (2011) generated data by tweeting questions about Twitter use to their own followers and to selected high profile, highly followed Twitter users. Responses were then qualitatively analysed. Users were found to actively negotiate boundaries between public and private, and their own voice and identity on Twitter. Ethical issues:. It is not clear how respondents were made aware that their replies might be published and used in research. Interestingly, the authors chose to anonymise the twitter names of most of their sources in the article, whilst identifying those of the highly followed users. Marwick and boyd determined that an expectation of having their authorship acknowledged might override any concerns about confidentiality, for those users who actively seek a wide readership for their tweets. This is another example of the tensions between the public and private on Twitter. Context dependent: Journalists Organisations

Protected accounts

- Content; - Expectations of audience size/ composition

Highly followed #contributions

Twitter & public /private domains: contextual integrity

Privacy in the technological age can be understood using the concept of contextual integrity (Nissenbaum 2004). Setting, content and relationships for example, govern our constantly shifting expectations around the sharing of information. Underpinning expectations are context-dependent norms of appropriateness and distribution. Across social media platforms, these contextual boundaries and norms are under constant renegotiation. The figure above applies a contextual notion of privacy to Twitter domains.

The naturally occurring tweet is authentic to the setting., which may be regarded as important in qualitative research (Guba & Lincoln 1994 in Seale 2002). However, accessing, archiving and analysing a body of tweets raises questions of consent and privacy. Tweets generated for research (e.g. as responses to researcher questions) are less obviously authentic to the Twitter context. However, they may be authentic and meaningful, albeit short, utterances on specific topics. Ethical issues here centre on transparency. The researcher should be clear about their intentions to use responses as data, in order to respect the autonomy of potential participants and the authenticity of the research.

Marwick, A. E. and boyd, d. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse and the imagined audience. New Media and Society, 13, 1: 114-33 Nissenbaum, H. (2004). Privacy as contextual integrity. Washington Law Review, 79: 1. Available: Procter, R. et al (2012) Reading the riots on Twitter. Presentation to Social Research Association Social Media Conference, Leicester, March 2012. Available: Seale, C. (2002) Quality issues in qualitative inquiry, Qualitative Social Work, 1 (1): 97-110 Vieweg, K. (2010) The ethics of Twitter research. In Revisiting Research Ethics in the Facebook Era: Challenges in Emerging CSCW Research, Workshop, Savannah Georgia, February 2010. Wasserman , T. (2012) Twitter says it has 140 million users. Mashable 21 Mar 2012 Zimmer, M. (2010). But the data is already public. On the ethics of research in Facebook. Ethics and Information Technology 12, 4: 313-25