The #SocialEthics report from researcher Ipsos MORI and think tank Demos is the outcome of a year-long exploration of social media research ethics, including qualitative workshops and an online survey of 1,250 adults.
This found that just 38% of respondents were aware their individual social media posts were potentially being analysed by third parties for research projects. And 60% said that should not happen, despite this possibility being outlined in the terms and conditions of the major social networks.
And when asked to review how likely they would be to approve a social media research project on a scale of one (definitely would not) to ten (definitely would), the average score was 5.02.
The study further noted that 41% had given a score of four or below, which it suggested was indicative of being unlikely to approve such research.
"There are a lot of safeguards that need to be put in place to introduce a broad-based trust in social media research" it observed, adding that in workshops it had found a real distrust of organisations using data without direct consent.
Among participants, there was a feeling that "they were losing control of data that is being shared on social media".
Their fears will not have been allayed by the report authors' comments that research methodology is sometimes led by what is technically possible rather than what might be regarded as ethically appropriate.
They further noted that a considerable amount of social media analysis conducted in the UK is done outside any formal ethical structures, whether by brands or social media analytics platforms (and none of the latter have signed up to the ethical code of the Market Research Society).
The report offered recommendations on how research organisations and social media platforms can build trust, including greater transparency around research projects and a review of terms and conditions.
Social media users could also be allowed to opt-out from individual projects or all research conducted by particular organisations, while researchers should minimise unnecessary personal data collection, ensuring they gather only what is needed for their project. Social media users should also be consulted if researchers plan on using verbatim content.
Data sourced from Ipsos MORI; additional content by Warc staff