As researchers we have an equal responsibility to both client and participant – and the latter is sometimes forgotten. It is of utmost important that people who take part in our studies are protected in terms of the data they give us. They have a right to know exactly what that data will be used for, and should sign consent to this effect.
Never before has this been more important than with the advent of social media. Information that researchers get from social media platforms can go viral very quickly, and people’s identities can be tracked far more easily. Very often participants will give information unwittingly that can be traced back to themselves. As researchers, we are not allowed to pass on any information that may lead to the identification of a participant.
When participating in online research, and particularly MROC’s (Market Research Online Communities), participants must make sure they are aware upfront of the subject matter under discussion, and also any rules that should be adhered to. Information may be placed in the public domain, and thus they must be comfortable that their identities cannot be linked in any way – and again – sign consent to participate. In some cases avatars are used, to prevent identification of the participants. Researchers need parental consent for any under 18’s participating in research.
In a nutshell, all the ethics that generally apply are amplified when it comes to social media research as it is such a public and powerful domain. Researchers need to ensure they do not engage in any activities which could undermine public confidence in market, social or opinion research. Participants need to know their information may not be used for anything apart from the research: they may not be contacted at a later stage for direct marketing or promotion for example.
Researchers – be responsible. Participants – be informed!
Reference: Esomar Guidelines for Social Media Research