New frontiers? An update to Future challenges, take-down notices and social media research

The 4th annual SRA conference on social media in social research took place on May 16th. As I mentioned in my previous post the theme of the event was future challenges and I was pleased that the six challenges I’d highlighted in my post resonated throughout the day. It was a packed event with some really interesting and thoughtful presentations. Dan Nunan (@DanNunan) from Henley Business School kicked off the day by challenging us to consider the legal issues of consent and data access in this time of increasing legal regulation. I was particularly taken by his consideration of the nature of informed consent in social media research. He reminded us that most social media users barely scan, if they read them at all, the terms & conditions of the platforms they use. With this in mind he suggested the position taken by some researchers that use of data taken from publicly available social media is ‘fair game’ might be suspect. At best he argued we have ‘uninformed consent’, it might be legal but is it ethical? image

Dan wanted us to think about whether we need to conceive a new form of informed consent, he talked about ‘participative’ consent where consent is sought frequently and explicitly from participants. And he cautioned that the voices of researchers in the social sciences have not been heard well enough in current legislative debates around the use of personal data. He drew our attention to the EU’s potential legislation requiring explicit consent (see picture bar above) which could have far-reaching implications for our access to data posted on social media. Challenging stuff so it was good to hear Samantha McGregor (@sammibmcg), Senior Policy Manager at the ESRC talk about how the research councils are engaging in this debate giving researchers a collective voice.

Next up was Professor Rob Procter (@robnprocter) from Warwick University describing how the Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (@cosmos_project) – which is a collaboration of a number of academic researchers – is developing an open access platform which will give researchers a range of tools for social media data analysis. See the photo below for the impressive range of analytical tools this will provide, it was exciting to hear that the first desktop release of the platform will be launched at the ESRC Research Methods Festival in July

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Then we heard from Joanna Disson & Jamie Baker at the Food Standards agency about how they have been making forays into using social media in government social research. A fascinating case study showing that the tide may be turning in government research towards accepting social media data as one of a number of sources of evidence to inform policy-making. They have been tackling a prevailing scepticism about the reliability, integrity and robustness of social media research by commissioning a think piece from Dr Farida Vis (@flygirltwo) and by using social media in a number of small-scale experiments as part of their ongoing research projects.

image The team have been instrumental in setting up a small group of government social scientists who are keen to explore how to use social media research. It was interesting to hear how the relationship between communications and research has been key to making this happen and heartening that social media research and engagement is becoming more important in the FSA’s social policy research. Joanna and Jamie described how using social media both as a platform and as a tool for gathering research intelligence helps the FSA to stay in touch with hard to reach audiences and collaborate better with interest communities like the food industry.

Next up were a team from TNS BMRB Scotland presenting a case study of their social media work analysing Facebook data and the Scottish Independence debates. What was interesting here was how Preritt Souda (@preriit2131) and Alistair Graham have been comparing the findings from their analysis of Facebook posts to the main pages of the Better Together and Yes campaigns to the more conventional methods of polling.They have found some differences in public opinion looking at both sets of data comparatively and I’m sure there is scope for more work of this type comparing and contrasting the attitudes of the public in different spheres of political and other debate.

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After lunch Dhiraj Murthy (@dhirajmurthy), from Goldsmiths University, did a terrific job of re-energising us with his talk introducing social network analysis of social media, he provided lots of insight into how critical sociology can be enhanced by this type of analysis and gave useful pointers for researchers new to this area. We were particularly taken by his example of SNA for The Voice UK and it will surprise no one to learn that whilst Kylie is the super-connector it’s Tom Jones who leads the lack as the super-ego! Seriously though Dhiraj was able to convey the methodological challenges of these approaches but also their very valuable contribution to applied research topics from race and racism through to health promotion and extremism. He was a strong advocate of the application of a critical eye to all social media methodologies so that social scientists can make use of their contribution to exsiting debates without falling foul of accusations of bias or unrepresentativeness.

Samantha McGregor then gave the conference an update on the ESRC approach to social media research. It was good to hear a reiteration of the ESRC’s commitment to new forms of data as a priority area for investment but disappointing to have confirmation that budget constraints mean there will not be another major call for research in this area this year. The ESRC has also decided to look at other new forms of data such as CCTV alongside social media research. Samantha explained the many and varied ways in which the ESRC is already supporting developments in this area and confirmed that Professor David DeRoure (@dder) is now working alongside the ESRC team as a strategic advisor for social media research to ensure that future investments and initiatives are aligned to work being done by the other research councils in the UK and internationally. There was a strong emphasis on cross-disciplinary approaches to new forms of data. The session ended with a rallying call for social researchers to contribute to the current BIS consultation on spending priorities for the coming year, you can do that here.

The last paper of the day was from Suay Ozkula (@suayozkula) it was a fascinating introduction to her PhD research on digital activism at Amnesty International. Her project is a ‘multilayered ethnography’ and it was great to end the day with a real focus on more qualitative approaches to social media research. Suay has been working at Amnesty International during this process and as such has been able to capture a real insider account of how one third sector organisation is grappling with the new challenges posed by ‘digital activism’ including trying to establish a working defination of what it is and how it differs from the traditional forms of activism Amnesty International has been engaged in.

The day ended with a Question Time style panel chaired by Simon Haslam representing the SRA and involving myself, Rob, Dhiraj and Dan. It was rather better behaved than the BBC version and we were at times dangerously close to being in violent agreement with one another.

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We tackled questions from the floor including: how we can build adequate capability for these new methodological approaches; how are participants in research viewing our use of their data; how should we tackle the legal and ethical implications of social media research; and , how we can address the concerns of those worried about the representativeness of social media data.

  • On the first point our thoughts included making sure the method, tools and critical thinking around social media research are included on university curricula, and reinforced by DTCs; ensuring that opportunities for development are given to existing lecturers, ethics board members and research commissioners; looking to build opportunities for development in all sectors of social research so that the research agenda is driven by many different approaches and not dominated by one approach/set of approaches; incorporating peer led workshops and events to build cross-disciplinary collaborations and to enable us as a community to keep pace in this fast changing area; Rob made the case for supporting the development of citizen social science by encouraging us to share our knwoeldge with the public both on projects and in developing new ideas and solutions through events like Hackathons and data dives.
  • We discussed the engagement of participants and I reminded people about the research that we had done with participants at NatCen last year. You can find the report here: http://www.natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/research-using-social-media-users-views/
  • In terms of making sure the concerns of social science are addressed in ongoing discussions about the legal and ethical frameworks for access to public data, we were all of one voice arguing that we as individuals and professional bodies need to start talking quickly and loudly about the benefits of social research using social media data for the public interest.
  • On the final point about assuaging concerns about the representativeness and robustness of methods the panel and audience discussed the need to be  confident about the methods we use,  be critical in our use of new data and new social media and be prepared to make the case for the benefits and insight research in this area can add to our existing understanding of social life.

The SRA will be publishing the event presentations on their website shortly and you can also see all the tweets from the event here.

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