The Tricky Ethics of Using YouTube Videos for Academic Research

Jane C.Hu in P/S Magazine: “…But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily unethical, either, but it’s worth asking questions about how and why researchers use social media posts, and whether those uses could be harmful. I was once a researcher who had to obtain human-subjects approval from a university institutional review board, and I know it can be a painstaking application process with long wait times. Collecting data from individuals takes a long time too. If you could just sub in YouTube videos in place of collecting your own data, that saves time, money, and effort. But that could be at the expense of the people whose data you’re scraping.

But, you might say, if people don’t want to be studied online, then they shouldn’t post anything. But most people don’t fully understand what “publicly available” really means or its ramifications. “You might know intellectually that technically anyone can see a tweet, but you still conceptualize your audience as being your 200 Twitter followers,” Fiesler says. In her research, she’s found that the majority of people she’s polled have no clue that researchers study public tweets.

Some may disagree that it’s researchers’ responsibility to work around social media users’ ignorance, but Fiesler and others are calling for their colleagues to be more mindful about any work that uses publicly available data. For instance, Ashley Patterson, an assistant professor of language and literacy at Penn State University, ultimately decided to use YouTube videos in her dissertation work on biracial individuals’ educational experiences. That’s a decision she arrived at after carefully considering her options each step of the way. “I had to set my own levels of ethical standards and hold myself to it, because I knew no one else would,” she says. One of Patterson’s first steps was to ask herself what YouTube videos would add to her work, and whether there were any other ways to collect her data. “It’s not a matter of whether it makes my life easier, or whether it’s ‘just data out there’ that would otherwise go to waste. The nature of my question and the response I was looking for made this an appropriate piece [of my work],” she says.

Researchers may also want to consider qualitative, hard-to-quantify contextual cues when weighing ethical decisions. What kind of data is being used? Fiesler points out that tweets about, say, a television show are way less personal than ones about a sensitive medical condition. Anonymized written materials, like Facebook posts, could be less invasive than using someone’s face and voice from a YouTube video. And the potential consequences of the research project are worth considering too. For instance, Fiesler and other critics have pointed out that researchers who used YouTube videos of people documenting their experience undergoing hormone replacement therapy to train an artificial intelligence to identify trans people could be putting their unwitting participants in danger. It’s not obvious how the results of Speech2Face will be used, and, when asked for comment, the paper’s researchers said they’d prefer to quote from their paper, which pointed to a helpful purpose: providing a “representative face” based on the speaker’s voice on a phone call. But one can also imagine dangerous applications, like doxing anonymous YouTubers.

One way to get ahead of this, perhaps, is to take steps to explicitly inform participants their data is being used. Fiesler says that, when her team asked people how they’d feel after learning their tweets had been used for research, “not everyone was necessarily super upset, but most people were surprised.” They also seemed curious; 85 percent of participants said that, if their tweet were included in research, they’d want to read the resulting paper. “In human-subjects research, the ethical standard is informed consent, but inform and consent can be pulled apart; you could potentially inform people without getting their consent,” Fiesler suggests….(More)”.