Another week, another case concerning the use of social-media data and the question of informed consent. The U.S. Department of Defense’s military research department, also known as DARPA, funded studies that tracked and analyzed Twitter activity. In some cases, researchers contacted unwitting subjects to gauge their reactions and track their responses to certain things, according to the Guardian.
The studies reportedly zeroed in on social-media activity related to Occupy and Middle East protests. The Guardian reports that one study’s researchers said: “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information, our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.” How does the study do that? “Unlike existing work, which often uses only social network properties, our feature set includes personality traits that may influence one’s retweeting behaviour.”
Now about the question of informed consent — which has gotten plenty of attention lately in the wake of Facebook’s manipulation of users’ news feeds to test their emotional reactions. As Brandon Bailey wrote, government and academic research usually follow guidelines that include obtaining consent from study subjects. But one researcher involved with one of the DARPA-funded studies said informed consent wasn’t required for a study that pulls from publicly available information, according to the Guardian.
Photo from AFP/Getty Images archives