Ethical Considerations in Social Media Research

by Tonya Ricklefs

Last month, I had the opportunity to present a paper on the implications, challenges, and ethics involved in conducting social media research. As a beginning researcher, I was concerned that not enough scientists are having discussions about how to conduct research involving social media and the ethical dilemmas that may be faced when gathering data through Internet-based outlets. When discussing this topic among colleagues, most of the feedback I receive is that the conversations take place at work or in local academic settings. The importance of elevating these conversations to include our national professional organizations was highlighted for me by a recent article published in the magazine Science.

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The article notes that social media data is cheap and fast, but fraught with biases and distortion. If this is your first exposure to the discussion about social media research, that notion could inspire you to run the other direction before undertaking research involving online social data. However, if you dig deeper you will find a good discussion on how important it is to acknowledge the possible biases in your data and the limitations of a study. What the article did not point out, however, is that this is true for all research data, regardless of where we obtain it.

Communication, expression, and connection between humans online, through apps, and through shared media have exploded. I believe dismissing research utilizing this data is a bit hasty because there is value in what we could learn. When I log onto Facebook, for example, I am sometimes bombarded by food pictures and recipes. These often come from the same two people, but one always chooses to share the absolute sweetest, sugar-dripping desserts while the other shares yummy, but health-friendly supper ideas. So, while nutrition is not my area, I think this could tell us something about why someone chooses particular recipes to share. I also think it would helpful to understand how these images impact us; in this example, perhaps how we eat when we see one type of image versus another online. Facebook is only one of several media outlets, such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram that would generate this type of data, but is it appropriate for us as professionals to use this type of data to answer research questions?

This research is already occurring, but the debates are still localized in small pockets of human and social sciences. I encourage you to seek out resources such as the Association of online and Internet Researchers (AoIR). This organization has developed a decision-making guide for ethical choices when gathering social media data. I also encourage you to begin this discussion in other professional organizations that you belong to. This way, we can develop innovative, thought provoking research that I think will be fascinating for other professionals to learn from.


  1. Ruths, D., & Pfeffer, J. (2014, November 28). Social media for large studies of behavior. Science.
  2. Markham. A., & Buchanan, E. (2012). Ethical decision-making and internet research. Association of Internet researchers, AoIR ethics working committee.