Using social media in research can be a cost-effective and rapid method to gather project data. However, there are several issues you must consider before proposing to use social media in a research project. Remember, all projects, no matter how data are collected, must adhere to the legal and ethical guidelines governing research with human subjects.
1. Social Media Platform
Are you collecting data from a specific social media platform (such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.)? You must review the terms and conditions and user agreements. You need to determine whether or not you are allowed to use the platform to conduct research.
2. Data Storage
While you may be collecting and analyzing data for a short time, data might be stored for a much longer time period on a server somewhere far removed from you.
3. Data Access
Using social media means you may have less control over the anonymity or confidentiality of the data. Have you minimized risks to your research participants? Have you determined whether the social media content should be considered public or private? Will someone else be able to view your data without your knowledge? Will any data mining occur?
4. Presenting Your Findings
Using direct quotations, even when author identification is removed, can lead to a breach of confidentiality or anonymity. Online searching for a specific phrase could mean your subjects are re-identified much more easily than you anticipated.
5. Interaction with Online Communities
Discussion boards, blogs, and online social networks of friends or associates are all forms of online communities. Your research project may involve collecting social media data passively or you may be asking people to answer specific questions. In either case, you want to be sure to interact with online communities the same way you interact with an offline community.
6. Beneficence, Respect for persons, and Justice
All projects, no matter how data are collected, must adhere to the legal and ethical guidelines governing research with human subjects.