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Watching What You Tweet? Science Mining Twitter

61 percent of respondents in a survey felt it is a breach of ethics for researchers to use their Twitter posts. (PhotoMIX-Company/Pixabay)
61 percent of respondents in a survey felt it is a breach of ethics for researchers to use their Twitter posts. (PhotoMIX-Company/Pixabay)
April 5, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. — New legal and ethical questions surrounding the business practices of Facebook seem to surface daily. But at the same time, a new survey finds most Twitter users don't realize that university researchers and others collect and analyze their tweets in the name of science.

Casey Fiesler, assistant professor in the department of Information Science at the University of Colorado, is coauthor of a study on how tweets are used. Of about 68 million active U.S. Twitter users, Fiesler said 268 were surveyed, with an average age of 32.

"So this was a survey, and we asked people generally how they felt about this, whether they were previously aware,” Fiesler explained. “And one of the striking things we found was that the majority of our participants had no idea, previously, that this was a thing that could happen."

Sixty two percent of the people surveyed did not know researchers used their tweets, and 61 percent thought it would be a breach of ethics. Twitter's privacy policy states that public information can be broadly disseminated to a wide range of users, including universities.

Fiesler said there are uses for tweeted information in the name of science that may not be intended by people with Twitter accounts. But she doesn't think they need to stop using social media or lock up their information.

"I think that most people know intellectually that Twitter is public,” she said. “And I would actually say that research is one of the less harmful things that could happen with a tweet."

Fiesler said most survey respondents were more comfortable having a tweet they've posted analyzed along with millions of others, or quoted anonymously, rather than having tweets attributed to them when they are used.

"Lots of researchers also look at things like Instagram, Yelp reviews,” Fiesler said. “Anything that is just public, so that anyone on the Internet can see it, is a typical ethical heuristic whether researchers can look at that data."

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, and recommends that researchers develop ethical guidelines and standards for mining Twitter data from users.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - KY