For research involving human subjects, issues of privacy, confidentiality and consent will more readily arise and researchers will need to comply with the relevant regulations. Thus to tell whether a project constitutes human subjects research becomes important, especially in borderline cases, such as social media research. Megan Moreno together with her colleagues looked into this question.

In their co-authored article “Ethics of social media research: common concerns and practical considerations”, social media research was categorised into three types: observational, interactive and interview. Under the United States (US) federal regulations, a human subject means a living individual about whom the researcher obtains information through interaction with him or identifiable private information.

For interactive and interview social media research, it is most likely to amount to human subjects research because it involves direct communications with the individual. Thus researchers must accurately identify themselves, explain their research purpose, and obtain the informed consent of the individuals.

However for observational social media research, it does not necessarily constitute human subjects research. For example, where the information extracted is publicly accessable and no interaction with the content-generator is involved, such research presumably is not captured.

There may be a fine line between research on the individuals behind the screens and research on simply the webpages. For Institutional Review Boards (IRB) in the US, traditionally there is an exemption of observation of public information regarding individual human subjects. However that exemption has recently been questioned. The relevant issue here is: to what extent does an individual have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding their social media contents?

The answer is shaped by several factors. Firstly, an individual could explicitly indicate his privacy expectation through the privacy setting commonly offered by social media websites. Therefore if an individual limits his page access to a small number of users, it surely will affect review of the nature of the research.

Traditionally some IRBs determine the nature of a social media website by whether a registration of username and password is required. The authors have rightly criticised treating this as the defining rule.  Nowadays for some social media websites, a username and password is required merely for a narrow purpose.

Such reasonable expectation of privacy is also shaped by a combination of the intent and the explicit privacy statement of the website. Some social media websites have shown a consistency between the website culture and its privacy statement. For example, Twitter expressly indicated that “our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world.” Some others may show less consistency, thus calling for a more substantive review of the website nature. For example, in the Rights-and-Responsibilities section of Facebook, it says that collection information from users requires consent and notice, while its privacy statement has made clear that information posted to “everyone” is publicly available.

Case law was viewed as another helpful reference on this issue. Facebook has been tested before federal and state courts in the US.  In Romano v Steelcase, 2010 WL 3703242 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Sept. 21, 2010), a case involving personal injury, the defendant sought disclosure of the plaintiff’s Facebook posts. The court examined the privacy policy of Facebook and held that information sharing is the very nature and purpose of such social networking sites. Therefore users do not enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy for publicly available posts on a social networking site.



Moreno, M. A., Goniu, N., Moreno, P. S., & Diekema, D. (2013). Ethics of Social Media Research: Common Concerns and Practical Considerations. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking16(9), 708–713.