Ethics can be thought of as being common moral guidelines which are intended to help us differentiate between right and wrong (Tinkler, 2013). The BBC defines ethics as ‘a system of moral principles, affecting how people make their decision and lead their lives’. Ethics are important to ensure that people worldwide understand what is acceptable—to guarantee people adhere to standards that promote understanding and justice. But it is rarely that simple. With no fixed answers as to what is exactly right or wrong, ethics can be highly subjective. This is due to the fact that standards of ethics depend on various different factors such as ‘discipline, political system, legal system, religious/social system, research content, setting/institution and time in history’ (McCutcheon, 2015).
Social media websites are increasingly being used as vast tools for research, opening up new opportunities for researchers. However, this new and rapidly expanding form of research tool has raised several challenges and concerns in regards to ethics. Social media websites have the ability to collect personal information from users when they set up an account – personal information including name, gender, age, location etc. As well as this, statistical information can also be collected through a person’s use of social media, such as their time of use, frequency of use, types of people and activities engaged with, which external links are clicked on, etc. etc.: pretty much anything a person does on social media can be seen, stored, analysed and utilised by social media analysts. But with this ability to track users come several ethical issues. One recent example where these ethical issues are clear is the experiment conducted by Kramer (Core Data Science Team, Facebook, Inc.), Guillory and Hancock (both from the Departments of Communication and Information Science, Cornell University). Facebook examined the experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks with the intention to find out whether ‘emotional contagions’ affect the emotions of social media users – that is, whether the emotions of social media users and their content was contagious to other users. But, in order to conduct this experiment, the research team used filtering software which allowed the researchers to filter through user’s newsfeeds. Even though the filtering system was backed by Facebook’s Data Use Policy which every user had to agree to on creating an account (yeah, because everyone reads the 100000 page policy book and doesn’t just click ‘I agree’), it is the fact that the 689, 003 participants, chosen at random, had no idea that they were being a part of the study which raises ethical issues. There was absolutely no level of informed consent. This experiment has led to many concerns amongst the recent media research which features social media statistics. I definitely believe that any social media user should be directly informed if their activities are being watched and recorded for media research; even though I would be totally fine with my data being used, and I’m sure most people would also be, it is just the fact of knowing that I am being watched which would make the report much more ethical.
Ethics are pretty much just a big subjective ball of confusion, with every person having a slightly different perspective on what is right or wrong. But regardless, it is clear that codes of ethics are definitely necessary in research in order to protect the rights and emotions of every human being.
Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E. & Hancock, J. T. 2014, ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, pp. 8788-8790.
McCutcheon, M. 2015 Research Ethics, BCM210, University of Wollongong, accessed 29 March 2015
Tinkler, P 2013, ‘Ethical issues and legalities,’ Using photos in social and historical research, SAGE, London, pp. 195-208, viewed 29 March 2015, <https://tr.uow.edu.au/uow/file/01c8dc7c-27b0-419b-a25f-54edd7f10d5b/1/Ethical%20issues%20and%20legalities.pdf>>.