Good Data Ethics

Good Data edited by Angela Daly, S. Kate Devitt and Monique Mann will be published by INC in January 2019. The book launch will be 24 Januari @ Spui25. In anticipation of the publication, we publish a series of posts by some of the authors of the book.

“Moving away from the strong body of critique of pervasive ‘bad data’ practices by both governments and private actors in the globalized digital economy, this book aims to paint an alternative, more optimistic but still pragmatic picture of the datafied future. The authors examine and propose ‘good data’ practices, values and principles from an interdisciplinary, international perspective. From ideas of data sovereignty and justice, to manifestos for change and calls for activism, this collection opens a multifaceted conversation on the kinds of futures we want to see, and presents concrete steps on how we can start realizing good data in practice.”

Good Data Ethics

By Andrea Zeffiro

It’s been nearly a year since the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal dominated news reports and collective fascination, and we now know more, though still not enough, as to how Facebook traffics consumer data. Indeed, Facebook is not alone in its disservice to those of us who use and rely on the platform and its other services, and like other Big Tech companies, Facebook has mastered its doublespeak by touting ‘transparency’ to convey a commitment to disclosing its internal practices, and an openness to public scrutiny. Last year, for example, Facebook released ad transparency tools that permitted users to see how advertisers use the platform.  For the average user, these tools reveal the amount of advertising activity carried out, but they do not make transparent exactly how ads operate on the platform. Simply because users are given access to more information does not mean it is easy to parse. Facebook’s ‘transparency’ serves to uphold its core policies and practices without revealing any more about how our data is trafficked. And rather than seek to inform consumers in clear terms as to the kinds of data collected and how the data is used, we are asked to accept opaque and malleable terms of service. If anything, what has been rendered transparent by the crises weathered by Facebook is the asymmetrical relationship between those who collect, mine, store and analyze data, and those whom data collection targets.

On the heels of public scrutiny on the (mis)uses of user-generated data, academic research communities continue to grapple with how to work with social media data without reproducing the kinds of power imbalances I describe above. One thing is certain: we cannot rely on social media platforms to set the ethical norms for academic research. My contribution to Good Data works through some (and there are many) of the complex ethical conundrums researchers face when working with social media data.

In 2017 I conducted a pilot study to assess the current trends, standards and norms for working with social media data in a Canadian academic context. My research has shown that few institutions in Canada have ethics guidelines that apply specifically to social media research. This dearth of guidance reflects broader trends in digital data policies and practices. As Sandra Soo-Jin Lee explains, the “vacuum in policy has placed unrealistic expectations on existing review structures to address the changing social and commercial arrangements that characterize these online platforms.” In turn, researchers are left struggling to understand their ethical obligations when it comes to the collection and management of ‘public’ data associated with social media.

The challenges researchers face stem in part from how traditional norms and values of ‘human research ethics’ become strained by the complexity of interactions between individuals, networks and technical systems in social media research. For instance, any conventional understanding of ‘informed consent’ is circumvented by third-party disclaimers in platform policies and renders refusal of participation defunct. In turn, ethical standards may be left to interpretation. For some, this may counteract concerns about ‘ethics creep’ and the continued bureaucratization of research. But at the same time, short of clear guidelines, certain forms of social media research are required to undergo institutional review while others are not, which is not to say that all social media research should be exempt from institutional review, but rather that such inconsistencies could very well denote exempted research as ‘ethical’ simply by virtue of exemption. Additionally, a lack of guidance could encourage researchers to abide by a social media platform’s terms of service as ‘rules’ for research, yet these terms do not clarify the conditions for ethical research, but instead govern how a researcher is permitted to access and use data.

In my chapter, I call on researchers and research communities to take the lead in developing research methods, practices, and norms that foster ‘good’ social media research data ethics. Along with the ethical considerations explored in the text, I formulate prompts for researchers to integrate during research design, that is, prior to data collection, but also throughout the life-cycle of a project. The sets of questions are meant to signal how social media research requires rigorous thinking about the ramifications of the choices we make in every part of our research process, rather than assuming that a platform’s terms and conditions or a university ethics board will fulfill the task of ensuring that research is conducted ethically.

The provocations and prompts I put forward join existing efforts to motivate research communities to (re)consider their ethical obligations in light of the challenges social media research brings to research ethics norms and conventions. What if research communities conceived of social media platforms not simply as sources of research evidence, but as collaborators in the construction of emerging research practices and knowledge production? Would this compel researchers to dig deeper into the politics of platforms as a condition of working with social media data? These kinds of questions – ones that connect our programs of research to contemporary data cultures – will initiate pathways to good data practices. After all, when we seek out social media data from a particular platform, we are in effect entering into a relationship with that platform, and our decision to work with these platforms as sources of data and as objects of research implicate us and our work into the power imbalances sustained by these entities. Good data ethics present an opportunity for researchers to start to talk back to the prescriptive data regimes set forth by social media platforms.


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