Informed, uninformed and participative consent in social media research

Daniel Nunan

University of Reading

Baskin Yenicioglu

Istanbul Bilgi University


Driven by the rise of online social networks, mobile computing and other data-centric technologies, online data gathering has become a significant feature of contemporary market research. However, another equally significant feature is concern over the ethical implications of using such data within market research activities. A key part of the ethical guidelines that govern market research is the concept of informed consent. Put simply, this is the concept that individuals agree to provide data for market research purposes to professionals and demonstrate an understanding of the implications of providing such data. While there are other core elements, such as respondent anonymity, informed consent is the starting point for professional ethics guidelines in market research, and it is informed consent that provides the greatest challenges when carrying out market research online. For research into social networks these challenges start with the blanket consent that sites seek from their users upon sign-up. In this paper we argue that consent in social networks is predicated on a type of uninformed consent that has the effect of disempowering consumers over the information held about them. This is a timely topic as the issue of ethics and social media has been the subject of recent debate within professional research communities (MRS 2012). The question of the commercial use of personal data has also become a significant regulatory issue, with drafts of the new European General Data Protection Regulation proposing far greater restrictions on the types of data that can be collected from online services without formal consent (Hunton & Williams 2012).