Data journalism and the ethics of publishing Twitter data

Matthew L. Williams at Data Driven Journalism: “Collecting and publishing data collected from social media sites such as Twitter are everyday practices for the data journalist. Recent findings from Cardiff University’s Social Data Science Lab question the practice of publishing Twitter content without seeking some form of informed consent from users beforehand. Researchers found that tweets collected around certain topics, such as those related to terrorism, political votes, changes in the law and health problems, create datasets that might contain sensitive content, such as extreme political opinion, grossly offensive comments, overly personal revelations and threats to life (both to oneself and to others). Handling these data in the process of analysis (such as classifying content as hateful and potentially illegal) and reporting has brought the ethics of using social media in social research and journalism into sharp focus.

Ethics is an issue that is becoming increasingly salient in research and journalism using social media data. The digital revolution has outpaced parallel developments in research governance and agreed good practice. Codes of ethical conduct that were written in the mid twentieth century are being relied upon to guide the collection, analysis and representation of digital data in the twenty-first century. Social media is particularly ethically challenging because of the open availability of the data (particularly from Twitter). Many platforms’ terms of service specifically state users’ data that are public will be made available to third parties, and by accepting these terms users legally consent to this. However, researchers and data journalists must interpret and engage with these commercially motivated terms of service through a more reflexive lens, which implies a context sensitive approach, rather than focusing on the legally permissible uses of these data.

Social media researchers and data journalists have experimented with data from a range of sources, including Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr and Twitter to name a few. Twitter is by far the most studied of all these networks. This is because Twitter differs from other networks, such as Facebook, that are organised around groups of ‘friends’, in that it is more ‘open’ and the data (in part) are freely available to researchers. This makes Twitter a more public digital space that promotes the free exchange of opinions and ideas. Twitter has become the primary space for online citizens to publicly express their reaction to events of national significance, and also the primary source of data for social science research into digital publics.

The Twitter streaming API provides three levels of data access: the free random 1% that provides ~5M tweets daily and the random 10% and 100% (chargeable or free to academic researchers upon request). Datasets on social interactions of this scale, speed and ease of access have been hitherto unrealisable in the social sciences and journalism, and have led to a flood of journal articles and news pieces, many of which include tweets with full text content and author identity without informed consent. This is presumably because of Twitter’s ‘open’ nature, which leads to the assumption that ‘these are public data’ and using it does not require the rigor and scrutiny of an ethical oversight. Even when these data are scrutinised, journalists don’t need to be convinced by the ‘public data’ argument, due to the lack of a framework to evaluate the potential harms to users. The Social Data Science Lab takes a more ethically reflexive approach to the use of social media data in social research, and carefully considers users’ perceptions, online context and the role of algorithms in estimating potentially sensitive user characteristics.

recent Lab survey conducted into users’ perceptions of the use of their social media posts found the following:

  • 94% were aware that social media companies had Terms of Service
  • 65% had read the Terms of Service in whole or in part
  • 76% knew that when accepting Terms of Service they were giving permission for some of their information to be accessed by third parties
  • 80% agreed that if their social media information is used in a publication they would expect to be asked for consent
  • 90% agreed that if their tweets were used without their consent they should be anonymized…(More)”.