This article appears in June Family magazine.
The ethical issues of just who’s looking at and using social media data are being debated, especially after the Cambridge Analytica controversy, in which 87 million Facebook users might have had their data shared with the political consulting firm unknowingly.
In one corner of the social media universe, Twitter is a networking site where users share short messages, or tweets. A majority of Twitter users don’t know that researchers often gather and study their tweets — occasionally, even the deleted ones, according to a new study.
“In light of recent events, transparency is even more important,” said Nicholas Proferes, co-author and assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information’s School of Information Science.
“Twitter is a tremendous resource for communication — however, it’s important to remember that in addition to friends, family and professional colleagues, there’s a wide ecosystem of actors out there collecting information from this wellspring. This includes folks who may have laudable goals, who are trying to make the world a better place, but also those whose motivations for collecting data we might not agree with, and whose intentions may be far less pure,” Proferes said.
A big part of this study was around getting users’ thoughts about the use of publicly available Twitter data for research, Proferes said. Of the 268 respondents, almost two-thirds — 61 percent — indicated they did not know researchers had access to their tweets, but co-author Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, doesn’t think this necessarily represents a lack of information literacy on the part of Twitter users.
“There is a lot of research that shows that people don’t read privacy policies or terms of service, or that even if they did, they likely wouldn’t understand them. So how would Twitter users know?,” she said. “Even if we realize that our content is public, there is a huge range of uses that might not occur to us. And in this case we saw a lot of ‘Why would scientists care about my tweets?’ In our data, some people were bothered by the idea, some just thought it was weird and others thought it was kind of neat.”
“Twitter is a really rich source of data for scientists to understand social phenomena like elections, protests, trends, responses to natural disasters,” Proferes said. “There have been hundreds of studies written that use data from Twitter, and most Twitter users in our study indicated that they would be willing to share the data they generate with researchers — if they’re asked.”
Researchers need to find ways to inform people about work that relies on this public data, get users’ permission when possible, and find ways of sharing research output back with Twitter users, Proferes said.
“At the same time, I think Twitter also needs to deal more directly with how they inform users about the potential uses of the content users generate,” Proferes said.
The more social media users know about the use of their data, the more empowered they are to control it.
“It isn’t always an all-or-nothing thing: If you’re thinking about quitting Facebook, maybe consider tweaking settings instead. Or on a platform like Twitter without as much granular privacy control, just consider how you want to present yourself to the world,” Fiesler said. “The goal of this work was largely to inform ethical practices for researchers, and I hope that it does because if both the platforms and third parties like researchers or journalists are more thoughtful about how they reuse public content, it will benefit users in the end.”