- What does ethical digital research mean to you?
doing ethical digital research to me is doing research that does not harm participants, and is done by good actors. I do not think that corporations have the ability to preform digital research in good faith because of the desire to profit off their subjects. Social media can be a very private part of a persons life, and using this data to entice people to buy things is not something I consider to be ethical.
- Given your knowledge of the IRB, do you think that they ensure ethical digital research as defined by you? Why or why not?
The IRB states that consent is not needed for research done on publicly available information on online platforms. This is probably due to the idea that there is an “informed consent” when people use public platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. In my opinion, informed consent does not exist in many of today’s online spaces, if any. People are put in a situation where they must use social media to stay up to date on news, relatives, and other happenings. When something becomes a requirement for social life, there becomes a power imbalance between owners of the social requirement, in this case online platforms, and its users. People know that their data may be used, however they do not know by who, for what, and are never given an option to reclaim their data. There are parts of social media analytics that people don’t realize exist either. Somebody may be aware that their posts may be seen by future employers, but unaware that their likes and dislikes are also public knowledge. Users have no choice but to consent to the rules that platforms place upon them, and for this reason I do not believe that people are giving fully informed consent to be analyzed.
What I will say, is that for academic research I do think using publicly available information is less unethical as opposed to how corporations conduct research. The problem with corporate research besides being designed to make profit is that it is often manipulative as well. Users are not just analyzed by corporations, but influenced and swayed by these analyzations. I believe that if the research is done in good faith, and is an attempt at better understanding society than this research can be ethical. When research has a direct, immediate, and ill-intentioned effect on users, this is when I see this research as inherently problematic and wrong.
- Is it even possible to protect human subjects in digital research? Is there a point in digital research, particularly when examining ‘big data’, where we can truly say that human subjects aren’t affected? If so, what is that threshold?
Human subjects can be unaffected by research if it is done by academics in the pursuit of better understanding society. People may be effected later on by policy changes that come as a result of these studies, but I think that this process is not a problem if it is done correctly. I think all research done outside of academia is designed to effect users, and therefore cannot be considered ethical.
- What are something that you can do as a digital sociologist to protect the human subjects in your own research projects?
1: Reducing bias as much as possible when attempting to study subjects.
2: Taking time in analysis to understand how this information can be used to make a difference in society
3: Not attempting what comes off as “gotcha” journalism where large groups of people are dismissed or made to look bad without enough research being done about a subject. This can lead to moral panic, especially with the scale in which digital data can be obtained