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Peter Milla

Peter Milla

Peter Milla is an Information Technology and Privacy consultant. He is an expert in the management of information technology, technology assessment, the application of technology to survey and market research as well as the security, privacy and regulatory issues relating to survey and market research.

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Ethics and Social Media Research

where do we go from here?

By Peter Milla - 22nd October, 2010

While social media is still in its infancy, it has already attracted about a half a billion users with thousands of social media sites worldwide. With so many people exchanging personal details and information on a daily basis, social media has generated high interest from several industries. One such industry is market research. Along with recent focus on mobile research, social media promises to be of importance to the research industry moving forward.

out there

Research companies are actively starting to use social media for access to online respondents as well as a source to “mine” insights (some say this activity may become a significant source of research data in years to come). All the activity and discussion surrounding social media has been recognized by research organizations including the ARF, CASRO, ESOMAR and the MRS who have launched/are launching councils, task forces and guidelines. I’m pleased to be serving on a CASRO’s task force myself which is currently looking at these issues.

In addition to the techniques and technologies required for conducting research using social media, an important area that must be addressed is ethical use. Like online research before it, research using social media will be subject to laws and regulations such as the Data Directive in the EU and HIPAA and COPPA in the US. These laws as applied to existing online research (quantitative and qualitative) typically require:

  Prevention of unsolicited contact.
  Email survey invitations or offers that are clear about the activity in question.
  Research opportunities that are “opt-in” and clearly provide subsequent “opt-out”.
  Clear, concise privacy policies that are easily accessible.
  Protection and security of personal data with access for individuals (whose data a research company stores).
  Explicit controls and limitations for certain types of data and populations (such as health-related data or data about children).

Areas to consider here include:

  Social media has the potential to create “grey zones” when it comes to research activities. The research industry has to work hard to maintain its position and hard fought exclusions from limitations placed on marketing.
  Today, not all companies conducting social media research employ the same rigor as they do with other methods and accordingly, there are limitations in terms of how it can and should be used. Accordingly, the lack of rigor must be addressed to maintain our industry’s position that there is a clear distinction between marketing and market research.
  Users of social networks used for research may or may not be aware that, without precautions, their conversations are open to extraction and analysis. This means we have to address the ethical requirements for disclosure when the intent is to analyze conversation content.

Accordingly, it appears logical for research companies to adopt policy frameworks for the social media research similar to those adopted for online research that address the key concepts in privacy law and regulations such as the EU Data Directive. These include:

  Onward Transfer
  Data integrity

In addition, the research industry needs to address the following:

  Properly define what social media research is

  Address the appropriate use of data:

    What can and can’t be done with data collected via social media research techniques?
  What is at risk if this information is used?
    What stipulations or contractual obligations are required prior to a research company using this information?

  Identifying the requirements for the separation of marketing and market research:

    Does social media research blur the lines between marketing and market research?

  Balancing protecting the research business with helping research businesses grow through the use of new tools and techniques. The research industry needs to move quickly (and appropriately) to leverage the opportunity of social media research. As with online research before it, we may see players outside the industry trying to enter and potentially causing problems of quality that will become issues for us to address.

  Industry self-regulation:

    Understanding future governmental/regulatory actions that might impact research businesses while maximizing opportunities for research businesses
  Understanding what the public and advocacy groups may do

The researcher that chooses to engage in social media research should consider the following suggestions:

  Follow the rules of social media engagement (including observing the choices, wants and behavioral culture of social network members.
  Follow existing laws, regulations and research industry codes with respect to online research.
  Work to design and deliver research with sound designs and quality execution

Social media and its use for research are as much about building relationships with individuals (respondents) as anything else. Such successful relationships must be built on trust. Accordingly the practices of research companies must be ethical to warrant that trust and build a viable technique.

Some useful links:

EU Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC

U.S.-EU & Swiss Safe Harbor Frameworks




Peter Milla

Comments on this article


Want to share your thoughts...?

This is a really great summary of the most important issues. Personally, I think notice and choice are the biggest items we need to be concerned with. It's almost impossible to accomplish them yet they are cornerstones of quality research. I'm ready to help create answers.

Annie Pettit, Conversition

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