In light of the recent data breach between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, Ilka Gleibs revisits her blog on the importance of informed consent in large-scale social media research to protect the privacy, autonomy, and control of social media users. This blog extends on her argument for an approach to consent that fosters contextual integrity where adequate protection for privacy is tied to specific contexts.

The recent data breach between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook has sparked a voracious discussion on how and with whom data collected via Social Network Sites (SNS) and associated apps can be used. It seems that Cambridge Analytica used data that was made available through Facebook for detailed psychometric analysis and, based on that, targeted election campaigning. This might have been one of the key factors for the success of the Vote Leave Campaign in the U.K. and Donald Trump’s success in the USA.

Not only did this story reach its current political highpoint by Mark Zuckerberg having to answer to the US Senate, it also was a huge blow for the company itself; Facebook is now the least trusted tech company in the USA.

It is not the first time that Facebook is in the news for breaching users’ trust by sharing and analysing their data. In 2014 Adam Kramer, a Facebook Data Analyst , and his colleagues published a large-scale experiment that manipulated Facebooks feeds’ emotional content and examined how Facebook friends’ emotions affected one another. The study on “massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” generated significant debate in both public and scientific spheres. Even the editor-in-chief of PNAS, where the study was published, voiced concern that the “collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining fully informed consent and allowing participants to opt out” and later Adam Kramer apologized for doing this research.

What seems to be problematic both in the case of Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook research is that users were (mostly) oblivious to the data usage. Many Facebook ‘users’ (or ‘potential participants’) felt concerned or even betrayed after publication of the research results in scientific publications and the recent Cambridge Analytica disclosures. In general, it seems that people would like to be informed about how their data is used and whether they are participants in an experiment. Despite the fact the Terms of Services specify that data is used for research and can be shared with third parties, it seems that the subjective expectations of consent might not always match the legal and institutional requirements that organisations follow and raises questions on how we conduct studies with large-scale data from Social media platforms and hence their research ethics.

In response to an earlier Facebook study that was printed in Nature , I published in an article in Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy  in which I focus on the question of the appropriate role of informed consent in use of Social Network Site data. Informed consent is an important cornerstone of ethical research that has important implication of using data from social media platforms and I argued that informed consent is (still) vital for conducting large-scale experiments or other kind of research on Social Network Sites to protect the privacy, autonomy, and control of users and ultimately our participants.

Based on the concept of privacy in context (Nissenbaum, 2009), I propose that this is because the norms of distribution and appropriateness are violated when researchers manipulate online contexts and collect data without consent. Contextual integrity refers to a theory of privacy in which the protection of personal information is linked to the norms of information flow in a specific context. Thus, contextual integrity ties adequate protection for privacy to norms in a specific context. In essence, it demands that information collection and its dissemination should be appropriate to the context (Nissenbaum, 2004). For example, in a healthcare context, patients expect to share personal information on their health and they most likely accept that this information is shared with a specialist. Their expectations are violated, however, if they learn that the information is sold to a marketing company.

Rather than prescribing universal rules for what is public (a Facebook page, or Twitter feed) and what is private, contextual integrity builds from within the normative bounds of a given context and illustrates why we must attend to the context in information flows and its use— not the nature of the information itself—when thinking about research ethics. Thus, it is this difference in how  the information flow is perceived by researchers (as accessible and easy to ‘manipulate’) and by users (as private and shared only among ‘friends’) that creates the ethical tension and which should be taken into account when we make ethical decisions on the use of SNS data.

To go back to the studies that stirred the controversy; whereas users or participants expected to share information with their known social circle (i.e., similar to telling a friend how I feel today, or whether I voted), the flow of information was changed in the way that this information was modified and responses were studied and then widely published (without consent). Thus, in the “faceless” context of online experiment, the users became “human subjects” and Facebook an experimental field; turning a virtual space into a virtual laboratory. Thus, changing and using information on the newsfeed or personal profiles for research purpose that is geared toward behavioral change impacted on the autonomy and freedom of participants. This of course is even more problematic when the information from personal profiles is used for winning elections. This is troublesome (and many users picked up on this) because it harms the perception of control and autonomy (which could be witnessed in the many negative responses especially to the PNAS paper or the CA controversy). From this standpoint the control of information and what is done with it seems crucial for the management of privacy and autonomy concerns and the ethical handling of research in Social Network Sides and has to be discussed in light of the overall values of the context.

Thus, I think that informed consent is vital when using any form of online data for social science research as well as market research to protect the privacy, autonomy, and control of users. Lack of ethical research can hinder academic progress, our regard as a community and trustworthiness; it can also decrease trust in the organizations involved and ultimately in political institutions, when the outcome of elections are at stake.

As social scientists we need an earnest, innovative and creative discussion in the field on how to implement ethical guidelines that first and foremost protect participants but also allow researchers to conduct sound research. I propose that we start to reconsider the conceptions of risk, benefit and harm of potential participants (e.g. SNS users) and treat participants as stakeholders in research and not passive objects we observe. Various potential ways of gaining consent are discussed in my article.

As a society we need a discussion on the role of social network data, the depths and breadth of its use and how to regulate its use.

What is the social value of these data that goes beyond selling products and how do we set standards for accessing and working with people’s online information that are in line with our ethical consciousness, research practice and societal values?


Author: Ilka Gleibs

Dr Ilka Gleibs is an Assistant Professor in Social and Organisational Psychology at Department of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics. Previously she worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter and as a Lecturer in Experimental Social Psychology at the University of Surrey. She obtained a PhD from the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena (Germany), and has a range of interests in social psychology but focuses mainly on understanding the consequences of multiple social identities, changes in (of) social identities and well-being. She is a member of the LSE Research Ethics Committee.

***This is an updated blog post from a previous post that was published here:

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