Blurred Lines: The Ethical Use of Social Media Data

When you tweet you assume everyone can see it, right? But does that also mean that anyone can take that tweet and use it for research purposes, commercial uses or to quote you in a newspaper without your permission?

Like most people I hadn’t actually read Twitter’s privacy policy. The first thing you see when go on the page is this:

twitter.jpgObviously they go into more detail than this, but it’s something that should always be in the back of your mind when you tweet. If you really can’t be bothered to read the policy, at least read this part.

“Twitter broadly and instantly disseminates your public information to a wide range of users, customers, and services, including search engines, developers, and publishers that integrate Twitter content into their services, and organizations such as universities, public health agencies, and market research firms that analyse the information for trends and insights. When you share information or content like photos, videos, and links via the Services, you should think carefully about what you are making public.”(Twitter: 1998)


I’ve been playing around with TAGS, a free Google Sheet template which lets you setup and run automated collection of search results from Twitter. Basically, in a few seconds it scrapes Twitter using any search term you want.

Should this be allowed?

Short answer – yes. Sites like Twitter are public, and if you look closely enough they do warn you that they’re sharing your information. But the lines become blurred with the use of sites with private profiles and groups.

Facebook is full of closed and secret groups.  You can basically tailor your own privacy. So if someone uses these conversations and information without asking, it’s wrong in my opinion. But the trouble is there are no actual rules on this.

When I studied journalism we were taught about asking people for quotes and keeping a record of interviews so we couldn’t be accused of misquoting. But this was mainly to cover our own backs. I don’t remember much about being ethical.

Personally I wouldn’t like to quote someone without asking first. In my short time as a freelance journalist I have interviewed a few people, but never just taken their quotes without asking. I once wrote an article on breastfeeding in public where I found my interviewees on a closed Facebook group. There was one lady who didn’t want to be named. I think I just ended up leaving her quote out.

But the point in TAGS is to grab a load of tweets for research purposes. It’s pretty much impossible to ask that many people if you can use their information. So do you anonymise everyone? Or just when the topics are sensitive? I guess it’s a judgement call for each individual project.

I still don’t know how I feel about the whole Twitter scraping thing. If it can be done on Twitter can it be done on other sites? Private sites? I feel like the vulnerable need to be protected, and maybe researchers need to be protected from reading certain things they shouldn’t be. I know I’m going to tread very carefully.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear any experiences.

Twitter. (2016). Twitter Privacy Policy. Available: Last accessed 7th October 2016.