Social media research: how can we ensure it is both ethical and meaningful?

Data collected from social media platforms provides opportunities for studying the online behaviours of large groups of people, including how narratives are formed, disseminated, and developed over time. However, with the collection, storage, and use of this data comes ethical and legal responsibilities. This poses the question: how can we ensure that social media research is both ethical and meaningful?

The prevalence of social media platforms and their use across the globe makes them attractive options for studying large groups of people, particularly when some of these platforms provide access to large amounts of structured data. These platforms provide the opportunity for individuals and organisations to communicate to large numbers of people, making them ideal for producing, disseminating, and shaping narratives. As such, social media research is an integral part of the PERCEPTIONS project that will provide us with unique insights into how narratives about Europe in the context of migration  are shaped and spread across the world.

However, the use of such data sources also presents ethical and legal concerns and challenges, particularly around the areas of informed consent, privacy, and profiling of individuals. For example, while the ‘traditional’ notion of research participants more easily facilitates gaining informed consent, this becomes challenging (if not impossible) when collecting social media data relating to thousands of individual accounts. In such circumstances, how can researchers be sure that these individuals meant for their data to be public, and how can we be sure that they are aware that this content is being made available and included in research studies?  

This use of social media data, and the potential for misuse, has resulted in several high-profile cases in the media, as well as the introduction of legislation which aims to protect the rights of the individual. For example, as part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2018 (BBC News, 2021), the personal data of approximately 87 million users was accessed without their knowledge and used to create targeted political campaigns. This became public knowledge around the same time that the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)  came into effect, in May 2018 (European Commission, 2020). 

The GDPR is an update and replacement of existing data protection legislation that aims to prevent such misuse by providing any organisation – including research consortiums – with a detailed framework to protect personal data and evaluate the risks involved in any data processing activity through, for instance, the creation of a Data Protection Impact Assessment.  These processes are essential for any social media research project to be ethical and abide by relevant laws. Yet, they can also be seen as introducing restrictions, such as minimisation or anonymisation of data, that may limit potential results. This has led us to the question: how can we ensure that the research we do is both ethical and meaningful?   

Throughout the first phase of the PERCEPTIONS project, we have designed social media data collection and analysis processes that carefully considered any risk to data protection, while still ensuring high quality, rigorous research. In such contexts, finding the right balance between these two imperatives has been one of the main challenges that we have faced. As this challenge is not unique to this project alone, we want to continue this conversation in a workshop event, with researchers from other projects that may have similar experiences when working with social media data. As part of this workshop, we will discuss and explore both the challenges and opportunities that we may experience and share ideas and best practices. Further details will be provided at a later date, but to register an interest or to find out more about the proposed workshop, please Prof. Shaun Lawson (Northumbria University) at


Authors: Jamie Mahoney & Kahina Le Louvier


BBC News (2021). Facebook – Cambridge Analytica Scandal. [online] Available at: 

European Commission (2020). Data Protection in the EU. [online] Available at: 


social media, ethics, GDPR, data protection

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