Rethinking ethics in social-network research


File 20171211 15358 w51s6s.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Social links.
civilservicelocal/Pixabay

Antonio A. Casilli, Télécom ParisTech – Institut Mines-Télécom, Université Paris-Saclay et Paola Tubaro, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

Fueled by increasingly powerful computing and visualization tools, research on social networks is flourishing. However, it raises ethical issues that largely escape existing codes of conduct and regulatory frameworks. The economic power of large data platforms, the active participation of network members, the spectrum of mass surveillance, the effects of networking on health, the place of artificial intelligence: so many questions in search of solutions.

Social networks, what are we talking about?

The expression “social network” has become common, but those who use it to refer to social media as Facebook or Instagram often ignore its origin and its true meaning. The study of social networks precedes the advent of digital technologies. Since the 1930s, sociologists have been conducting surveys to describe the structures of relationships that unite individuals and groups: their “networks”. These include, for example, advice relationships between employees of a company, or friendship ties between students in a school. These networks can be represented as points (students) united by lines (links).

Figure 1 : a social network of friendship ties between students in a school. Circles = girls, triangles = boys, arrows = ties.
J.L. Moreno, Who shall survive? 1934.

Before any questioning on the social aspects of Facebook and Twitter, this research shed light on, for example, marital role segregation, importance of “weak ties” in job search, informal organization of firms, diffusion of innovations, formation of business elites, social support for the sick or elderly. Designers of digital platforms such as Facebook have picked up some of the analytical principles on which these works were based, developing them with the mathematical theory of graphs (though often with less attention to the social issues involved).

Early on, researchers in this field realized that the traditional principles of research ethics (focusing on informed consent of study participants and anonymization of data) were difficult to ensure. By definition, social networks research is never about a single individual, but about relationships between this individual and others  –  their friends, relatives, collaborators or professional advisors. If the latter are reported by the respondent but are not themselves included in the study, it is difficult to see how their consent could be obtained. What’s more, results can be difficult to anonymize, in that visuals are sometimes disclosive even in the absence of personal identifiers.

Ethics in the digital society: a minefield

Academics have long been thinking about these ethical difficulties, to which a special issue of the prestigious Social Networks journal was dedicated as far back as 2005. Today, researchers’ dilemmas are exacerbated by the increased availability of relational data collected and exploited by digital giants like Facebook or Google. New problems arise as the boundaries between “public” and “private” spheres become confused. To what extent do we need consent to access messages that digital service users send to their contacts, their “retweets”, or their “likes” on their friends’ walls?

These sources of information are often the property of commercial enterprises, and the algorithms they use likely bias observations. For example, can we interpret in the same way a contact created spontaneously by a user, and a contact created as a result of an automated recommendation system? In short, the data do not speak for themselves, and before thinking about their analysis, we must question the conditions of their use and the methods of their production. They largely depend on the software architectures imposed by platforms as well as their economic and technical choices. There is a real power asymmetry between platforms  –  often the property of large multinational companies  –  and researchers  –  especially those working in the public sector, and whose objectives are misaligned with investors’ priorities. Negotiations (if possible at all) are often difficult, resulting in restrictions to proprietary data access  –  particularly penalizing for public research.

Other problems arise as a researcher may even use paid crowdsourcing to produce data, using platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to ask large numbers of users to complete a questionnaire, or even to download their online contact lists. But these services raise numerous questions in terms of workers’ rights, working conditions and appropriation of the product of work. The resulting uncertainty hinders research that could otherwise have a positive impact on knowledge and on society at large.

Availability of online communication and publication tools, which many researchers are now seizing, increases the likelihood that research results may be diverted for political or business purposes. If the interest of military and police circles for the analysis of social networks is well known (Osama Bin Laden was allegedly located and neutralised following the application of social network analysis principles), these appropriations are more frequent today, and less easily controllable by researchers. A significant risk is the use of these principles to suppress civic and democratic movements.

Figure 2 : Simulation of the structure of an Al-Qaeda network. Courtesy of the authors.
Kouznetsov A., Tsvetovat M., Social Network Analysis for Startups, 2011

The role of the researcher

Restrictions and prohibitions would likely aggravate the constraints that already weigh on researchers, without helping them overcome these obstacles. Rather, it is important to create conditions for trust and enable researchers to explore the full extent and importance of online and offline social networks  –  allowing them to capture salient economic and social phenomena while remaining respectful of people’s rights. Researchers should take an active role, participating in the co-construction of an adequate ethical framework, grounded in their experience and self-reflective attitude. A bottom-up process involving academics as well as citizens, civil society associations, and representatives of public and private research organizations could then feed these ideas and thoughts back to regulators (such as ethics committees).

Antonio A. Casilli, Associate professor Télécom ParisTech, research fellow Centre Edgar Morin (EHESS)., Télécom ParisTech – Institut Mines-Télécom, Université Paris-Saclay et Paola Tubaro, Chargée de recherche au LRI, Laboratoire de Recherche Informatique du CNRS. Enseignante à l’ENS, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

La version originale de cet article a été publiée sur The Conversation.

Sharing Networks BCN 2017

Did you attend the OuiShare Fest Barcelona 2017? If you did, and were not interviewed by a member of our team there, please take our survey online!

With a group of colleagues from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and in Collaboration with OuiShare, we are studying networking at the event. The OuiShare Fest aims, among other things, to bring people together: we want to see how interactions between participants facilitate circulation of ideas and possibly give rise to future collaborations.

We did the same study at the OuiShare Fest Paris 2016 and 2017.

For more details, see here.

Recent ethical challenges in social network analysis (RECSNA17)

Research on social networks is experiencing unprecedented growth, fuelled by the consolidation of network science and the increasing availability of data from digital networking platforms. However, it raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. New tools to collect, treat, store personal data expose both researchers and participants to specific risks. Political use and business capture of scientific results transcend standard research concerns. Legal and social ramifications of studies on personal ties and human networks surface.

We invite contributions from researchers in the social sciences, economics, management, statistics, computer science, law and philosophy, as well as other stakeholders to advance the ethical reflection in the face of new research challenges.

The workshop will take place on 5 December 2017 (full day) at MSH Paris-Saclay, with open keynote sessions to be held on 6 December 2017 (morning) at Hôtel de Lauzun, a 17th century palace in the heart of historic Île de la Cité.

Calendar:

  • Submit a 300-word abstract by 15 October 2017.
  • Let us know if you wish to be panel discussant or session chair by 20 October 2017 (send to: recsna17@msh-paris-saclay.fr).
  • Acceptance notifications will be sent by 31 October 2017.
  • Registration is free but mandatory: speakers (and discussants and chairs) should register between 15 October and 15 November 2017, other attendees by 30 November 2017.

Keynote Speakers

José Luis Molina, Autonomous University of Barcelona, “HyperEthics: A Critical Account”
Bernie Hogan, Oxford Internet Institute, “Privatising the personal network: Ethical challenges for social network site research”

Scientific Committee

Antonio A. Casilli (Telecom ParisTech, FR), Alessio D’Angelo (Middlesex University, UK), Guillaume Favre (University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, FR), Bernie Hogan (Oxford Internet Institute, UK), Elise Penalva-Icher (University of Paris Dauphine, FR), Louise Ryan (University of Sheffield, UK), Paola Tubaro (CNRS, FR).

Contact us

Email: recsna17@msh-paris-saclay.fr
Webpage: http://recsna17.sciencesconf.org
Twitter: @recsna17

Networks in the collaborative economy: social ties at the OuiShare Fest 2016

The OuiShare Fest brings together representatives of the international collaborative economy community. One of its goals is to expose participants to inspiring new ideas, while also offering them an opportunity for networking and building collaborative ties.

At the 2016 OuiShare Fest, we ran a study of people’s networking. Attendees, speakers and team members were asked to complete a brief questionnaire, on paper or online.Through this questionnaire, we gained information on the relationships of 445 persons – about one-third of participants.

Ties that separate: the inheritance of past relationships

For many participants, the Fest was an opportunity to catch up with others they knew before. Of these relations, half are 12 months old at most. About 40% of them were formed at work; 15% at previous OuiShare Fests or other collaborative economy experiences; 9% can be ascribed to living in the same town or neighborhood; and 7% date back to school time.

Figure 1: pre-existing ties

Figure 1 is a synthesis of these “catching-up-with-old-friends” relationships, in the shape of a network where small black dots represent people and blue lines represent social ties between them. At the center of the graph are “isolates”, participants who had no pre-existing relationship among OuiShare Fest attendees. The remaining 60% have prior connections, but form part of separate clusters. Some of them (27%) form a rather large component, visible at the top of the figure, where each member is directly or indirectly connected to anyone else in that component. There are also two medium-sized clusters of connected people at the bottom. The rest consists of many tiny sub-groups, mostly of 2-3 individuals each.

Ties that bind: new acquaintances made at the event

Participants told us that they also met new persons at the Fest. Figure 2 enriches Figure 1 by adding – in red – the new connections that people made during the event. The ties formed during the Fest connect the clusters that were separate before: now, 86% of participants are in the largest network component, meaning that any one of them can reach, directly or indirectly, 86% of the others.

Figure 2: new ties created at the event

Continue reading “Networks in the collaborative economy: social ties at the OuiShare Fest 2016”

Open Data: What’s new in 2017?

I am now in Montréal, where I participated, last Friday, in a panel on Open Data at “Science & You” international conference. It was interesting for me to reflect on how the picture has changed since my previous panel on the same topic – in Kiev in 2012. Back then, we were busy trying to convince public administrations that data opening was good for transparency and could help improve services to communities. Since then, a lot of attempts have been made in numerous countries – local authorities often pioneering the process, followed only later by central governments (one example cited in my panel was Québec City). What is made open is typically information from public registers (first names of newborns, records of road accidents) and increasingly, from technological devices and sensors (bus traffic information).

There are some conditions to be met for a dataset to be said “open”:

  • Technically, it needs to be “raw”, detailed, digital and reusable. The French Interior Ministry released results of the first round of the recent presidential elections within a few days, at polling station level. This is sufficiently detailed (with over 69,000 polling stations throughout the country), raw (allowing aggregations, comparisons etc.), and digital/reusable (so much so that the newspaper Le Monde could develop a user-friendly application to let readers easily check results in their neighborhoods). Some would also insist that “open” data should be released in non-proprietary formats (better .csv than .xls, for example).
  • Legally, the data must come with a license that allows re-use by third parties (typically within the Creative Commons family). Ideally, no type of reuse should be ruled out (including somewhat controversially, commercial / for-profit reuse).
  • Economically, the data should be available to all for free (or at least with minimal charges if data preparation requires extra work or expenses).

If in the past few years, a lot of thought has been devoted to the “ideal” conditions for data opening and how this would positively affect public service, the data landscape has now significantly changed.

Continue reading “Open Data: What’s new in 2017?”

A cooperative approach to platforms

I was yesterday at a nice and interesting conference in Brussels on “How to coop the collaborative economy“, organized by major actors of the Belgian cooperative movement and building on the experience of a growing network of persons and organizations to enhance a cooperative view of the internet. Several themes in connection with my studies of the collaborative economy emerged, and I’d like to summarize here what were, in my view, the main lessons learned of the day.

Continue reading “A cooperative approach to platforms”

Special RFS issue on Big Data

Revue Française de Sociologie invites article proposals for a special issue on “Big Data, Societies and Social Sciences”, edited by Gilles Bastin (PACTE, Sciences Po Grenoble) and myself.

Focus is on two inextricably interwoven questions: how do big data transform society? How do big data affect social science practices?

Substantive as well as epistemological / methodological contributions are welcome. We are particularly interested in proposals that examine the social effects and/or the scientific implications of big data based on first-hand experience in the field.

The deadline for submission of extended abstracts is 28 February 2017; for full contributions, it is 15 September 2017. Revue Française de Sociologie accepts articles in French or English.

Further details and guidelines for submission are in the call for papers.

Data, health online communities and the collaborative economy: my tour of Québec

This November gave me the opportunity to give talks and participate in scientific events throughout Québec.

comsanteI started in Montréal, with a seminar at ComSanté, the health communication research centre of Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), where I presented my recently published book on websites on eating disorders. While most media attention focused on controversial “pro-anorexia” contents, presented as an undesirable effect of online free speech, I made the point that this part of the webosphere is rather to be seen as a symptom of the effects of current transformations of healthcare systems under austerity policies. Cuts in public health spending encourage patients to be active, informed and equipped, but the resulting social pressure creates paradoxical behaviors and risk-taking.

Also in Montréal, I was invited to a discussion with economic journalist Diane Bérard on the growth and crisis of theecocoll collaborative economy. About 50 people attended the event, co-organised by co-working space L’Esplanade, OuiShare Montréal and the journal Les Affaires. Diane summarized the essentials of the event in a blog post just the day after, and noted six main points:

  • The Uber case dominates discussions and divides the audience – though the collaborative economy is not (just) Uber.
  • The discussion gets easily polarized – a result of the tension between commercial and non-commercial goals of the collaborative economy.
  • We still know little of the business models of these platforms and the external factors that facilitate or hinder their success.
  • Sharing is in fact a niche market – now probably declining after the first enthusiasms.
  • The key issue for the future is work – its transformations, and how it is re-organizing itself.
  • Collaborative principles advance even outside the world of digital platforms, and sometimes permeate more traditional sectors. The near future of collaboration are sharing cities.

Continue reading “Data, health online communities and the collaborative economy: my tour of Québec”

Online health communities: data for doctors, patients and families

Online health communities have been demonstrated to be an important part of the self-empowering experience of today’s patients. While most attention so far has been devoted to self-styled health communities, where patients autonomously share expertise and experience, today policymakers and healthcare providers are harnessing the power of this very idea and are offering similar solutions themselves.

Earlier this week at the OuiShare Fest Barcelona – a major get-together of the Spanish-speaking collaborative economy community in Europe – a few of these initiatives were presented.

keyboard-and-stethoscopeSocial Diabetes is a small company founded by and for patients, that offers a mobile app for online, real-time health monitoring services. Diabete sufferers can use it to optimally adjust their insulin dosage based on their carb count and blood sugar levels; in some cases, they can also track their exercise and patterns of behavior to receive alerts whenever relevant. Patients can share this information with their doctors, also through the app; and can discuss with other patients. This is an example of a user-based innovation where autonomous patients take the initiative, aiming to take control of their health and life. Still, physicians have been allowed in: the platform has a medical advisory board, and individual doctors can register as users to follow their patients.

Continue reading “Online health communities: data for doctors, patients and families”

Are we all data laborers?

autonomyI gave today a talk at AUTONOMY, a major festival of urban mobility in Paris, where new technologies are at center stage, from driverless cars to electric scooters, bike-sharing solutions, and connected infrastructure for the smart city. I had been asked to talk about labor in digital platforms, such as those offering mobility services.

Digital platforms are often thought of in terms of automation, but it islogos clear that there is labor too: we all have in mind the example of the couriers and drivers of the “on-demand” economy. But there’s more: I’ll show how platforms involve the labor of everyone, including passengers and users of all types. By labor, I mean here human activity that produces data and information – the key source of value for platforms. It is often an implicit, invisible activity of which we may not even be aware – as we tend to focus more on consumption aspects as we talk routinely about “car pooling” or “car sharing”, rather than looking at the underlying productive effort. This is what scholars call “digital labor”.

Four eco-systems

Specialist Antonio Casilli distinguishes four forms of digital labor in platforms, and I am now going to briefly outline them.

Continue reading “Are we all data laborers?”