What you say in tweets — including deleted or private posts — can be used for research and published in a variety of ways, and you probably didn’t know or approve, according to a new study co-written by a University of Kentucky professor.
Most Twitter users believe researchers and others should not be allowed to use their tweets without consent, according to the study from UK Assistant Professor Nicholas Proferes and Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study was released while privacy issues and social media posts have been at the forefront of high-profile controversies. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by Congress this week after data firm Cambridge Analytica misused data from 87 million users.
Social media gives researches potentially easy access to vast amounts of data that had to be collected by more limited resources previously. Use of social media for research purposes raises questions and concerns about privacy and ethics.
Most Twitter users — 61 percent of those surveyed — were unaware tweets and profile information are used by researchers for studies, according to 268 fairly active and experienced Twitter users surveyed and studied by Proferes and Fiesler.
“If this pattern is representative of Twitter users more broadly, it suggests that users are often unaware of how the content they produce is collected and used by those beyond their followers,” according to the study.
To help guard against bias in favor of research, Proferes and Fiesler chose participants from a Amazon Mechanical Turk where workers complete small tasks for so-called micropayments.
Twitter has proven to be a “highly successful platform for research,” with studies and knowledge gained on disease tracking, disaster events, and stock market and election prediction, according to the study. Because of this “data gold rush,” researchers have used Twitter to examine all sorts of aspects of human interaction, the study said.
Forty-three percent of the Twitter users were unaware researchers did not need their permission to use their tweets, the new study reported. It also found that 48 percent of them would be either very to somewhat uncomfortable if their entire Twitter history was used in a research study.
The study also concluded users are “broadly unaware” that the Library of Congress archives tweets and that deleted or private tweets can be recovered or used. If a follower of a private account retweets a private tweet, it’s no longer private. Furthermore, a 2016 study showed that deleted tweets can be recovered by using the Twitter application programming interface or API.
“Users are broadly unaware of the fact that APIs exist, that Twitter sells access to tweets via the ‘firehose’ and the the Library of Congress archives tweets,” the study noted citing a separate 2017 analysis by Proferes.
Most people surveyed thought using social media data for science is important and would allow researchers to use their content if asked. But researchers have to figure out how to inform Twitter users their material is being used.
“Twitter is a really rich source of data for scientists to understand social phenomena,” Proferes said in a UK press release. “But we can do better about informing people about our research, getting their permission when possible and sharing our findings.”