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13 September 2018
Social Media Offers Researchers Several Advantages - But Comes With Ethical Challenges

(Published - 13 September 2018)

Social media has become an effective tool for researchers, offering advantages from sourcing Big Data to cost saving - but there are ethical implications to research conducted using these platforms.

“Millions of South Africans use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin, and more and more people join daily. This makes finding data more accessible, but it does offer challenges.”

So said Dr Amiena Peck, speaking at the third Annual Western Cape Research Ethics Committees Colloquium hosted by the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on Tuesday 11 September 2018.

According to Dr Peck, who lectures at UWC’s Department of Linguistics, social media platforms have created many advantages for online research, but researchers have not yet grappled with the consequences.

“Unfortunately, there are few if any guidelines and little to no existing literature for guidelines when using social media for data collection,” she said, “and there are several other challenges - such as privacy issues and cybersecurity.”

Professor Neil Myburgh, chair of the Colloquium and of UWC’s Biomedical Research Ethics Committee, said the issue of consent when using social media is often not spoken about - but that could not be allowed to continue.

“We have seen on Twitter where photos of children were shared in particular campaigns, bringing ethical issues to the surface,” he said. “We all know that it is critical to protect the rights and dignity of children - and social media is no exception to that.”

Myburgh noted that researchers need to consider all ethical issues when harvesting data from social media, and strict ethical guidelines need to be established for social media use.

“Not all research is necessarily as risky and invasive as clinical trials, for which our national regulations were first devised. It will take vigorous discussion to determine the extent to which current regulatory practices now applied to health research are appropriate for the regulation of social media research, and all research in universities.”

Responsible Research and the Role of Ethics Committees

The colloquium delved into the place of research ethics in a changing research environment, touching on topics from undergraduate health research and children’s rights to the place of ethics committees in the humanities and social sciences.

“The history of exploitation and abuse in the health research arena shows that health researchers are capable of some very wrong things - from Nazi experiments to Henrietta Lacks and the HeLA cell tissue culture revolution, and from Tuskegee in the US to Vipeholm in Sweden,” said Dr Myburgh.

“At the same time, we need to consider whether we are not at times over-regulating health research. Are regulations to protect people now throttling innovations and subsequently limiting the potential to really help communities?”

The colloquium enabled fruitful engagement between people closely involved in ensuring both scientific and ethical quality in research, whilst contributing to better practices all around.

Attendees included participants from research structures at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town, the South African Medical Research Council and the Western Cape Department of Health.