Research on social networks raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. State-of-the-art tools to collect, handle, and store personal data expose both researchers and participants to new risks. Political, military and corporate interests interfere with scientific priorities and practices, while legal and social ramifications of studies of personal ties and human networks come to the surface.
The proposed special section aims to critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, specifically addressing the challenges that recent technological, scientific, legal and political transformations trigger.
Following a successful workshop on this topic that was held in December 2017 in Paris, we welcome submissions that critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, possibly based on reflective accounts of first-hand experiences or case studies, taken as concrete illustrations of the general principles at stake, the attitudes and behaviors of stakeholders, or the legal and institutional constraints. We are particularly interested in novel, original answers to some unprecedented ethical challenges, or the need to reinterpret norms in ambiguous situations.
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).
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.
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).
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.
Let us know if you wish to be panel discussant or session chair by 20 October 2017 (send to: email@example.com).
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.
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”
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).
Don’t say that “the data are already public”. The fact that OkCupid users knowingly share some personal information, does not mean they consent to it being used for purposes other than interactions with other users on that site. By scrapping data, one may be able to put together the whole history of users’ presence on that platform, revealing more of their life or personality than they themselves are aware of. More dangerously, data extracted in this way might in some cases be matched with other information, thereby potentially becoming much more disclosive than what the persons concerned ever intended or agreed. And the disclosure may be aggravated by releasing the data outside the platform.
It is often believed that use of secondary data relieves the researcher from the burden of applying for ethical approval – and sometimes, from thinking about ethics altogether. But the whole process of research involves ethical considerations, whether or not any primary data collection is involved. This starts from the initial design of the study, which should aim at the public good (and at the very least should do no harm) and continues until communication of results, which should ensure transparency, publicness and replicability. More specifically, what ethical issues will the data collection and analysis stages involve, when secondary data are used?
Secondary data are usually defined as those that were collected as part of a different research, with purposes other than those of the present study. They may be official statistical data (census for example, but also, increasingly, administrative data), data gathered by commercial operators (time series of stock prices for example), and researchers’ data from past projects. They are more often quantitative, although secondary analysis of qualitative data is becoming more and more common.
Weighing risks and benefits
Use of secondary data is in itself, a highly ethical practice: it maximizes the value of any (public) investment in data collection, it reduces the burden on respondents, it ensures replicability of study findings and therefore, greater transparency of research procedures and integrity of research work. But the value of secondary data is only fully realized if these benefits outweigh the risks, notably in terms of re-identification of individuals and disclosure of sensitive information.
For this to happen, use of secondary data must meet some key ethical conditions:
Data must be de-identified before release to the researcher
Consent of study subjects can be reasonably presumed
Outcomes of the analysis must not allow re-identifying participants
Use of the data must not result in any damage or distress