Cambridge Analytica’s alleged harvesting of 50m Facebook profiles assembled from data provided by a UK-based academic and his company is a worrying development for legitimate researchers.The scandal that has erupted around
Political data analytics company Cambridge Analytica – which is affiliated with Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) – reportedly used Facebook data, after it was handed over by Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s department of psychology.
Kogan, through his company Global Science Research (GSR) – separate from his university work – gleaned the data from a personality test app named “thisisyourdigitallife”. Roughly 270,000 US-based Facebook users voluntarily responded to the test in 2014. But the app also collected data on those participants’ Facebook friends without their consent.
This was possible due to Facebook rules at the time that allowed third-party apps to collect data about a Facebook user’s friends. The Mark Zuckerberg-run company has since changed its policy to prevent such access to developers….
Social media data is a rich source of information for many areas of research in psychology, technology, business and humanities. Some recent examples include using Facebook to predict riots, comparing the use of Facebook with body image concern in adolescent girls and investigating whether Facebook can lower levels of stress responses, with research suggesting that it may enhance and undermine psycho-social constructs related to well-being.
It is right to believe that researchers and their employers value research integrity. But instances where trust has been betrayed by an academic – even if it’s the case that data used for university research purposes wasn’t caught in the crossfire – will have a negative impact on whether participants will continue to trust researchers. It also has implications for research governance and for companies to share data with researchers in the first place.
Universities, research organisations and funders govern the integrity of research with clear and strict ethics proceduresdesigned to protect participants in studies, such as where social media data is used. The harvesting of data without permission from users is considered an unethical activity under commonly understood research standards.
The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica controversy is potentially huge for researchers who rely on social networks for their studies, where data is routinely shared with them for research purposes. Tech companies could become more reluctant to share data with researchers. Facebook is already extremely protective of its data – the worry is that it could become doubly difficult for researchers to legitimately access this information in light of what has happened with Cambridge Analytica….(More)”.