ESOMAR’s Social Media Research Guideline

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

While social media research is an emerging and valuable area of research used widely by both companies and public bodies in listening to the consumer voice, it has also attracted media attention because of consumer concerns that they are being observed or tracked without their knowledge.

Researchers must conduct this work professionally to protect the reputation of their own company and of market, social and opinion research with both the public and legislators.

With more than 4,800 members from over 120 countries, ESOMAR’s aim is to promote the value of market and opinion research in illuminating real issues and bringing about effective decision-making. The organization has drafted a new guideline in consultation with the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO) to ensure harmonized positions in the global online space, even though privacy laws in the EU are different and in some cases stricter than in the US.

The guideline is a response to the recent explosion of social media and the inevitable lag in the development of a law on data privacy that takes into account today’s ability of one person to communicate with many on publicly accessible online platforms. Its purpose is to propose pragmatic solutions based on the principles underlying existing laws whilst not purporting to provide legal certainty.

The guideline takes into account the principles of the ICC/ESOMAR International Code on Market Research and of the Guideline on Passive Observation to which this type of research is most akin. This guideline states: ‘The things that people are observed doing in a public place cannot be regarded as private or inaccessible to a researcher’ and ‘There may be instances in public places where informed consent from individuals is impossible to achieve. In those cases public notice should be given about the data collection.’ This was written to guide researchers observing behaviour in physical spaces, but the same principles should apply to observation on social platforms, according to ESOMAR.

The ICC/ESOMAR Code requires that personally identifiable data collected for research purposes shall not be used in any manner incompatible with these purposes. Such data can only be passed on to a client if the person has explicitly expressed this wish or given their consent and on the understanding that no commercial activity will be directed at them as a direct result of their having provided information.

This means that research data can only be reported in an identifiable form with the individual’s permission. This permission should either be obtained via the social site’s Terms of Use or by direct contact with the individual concerned. In the event that getting permission is impossible, the information has to be masked or anonymized so that the individual cannot be identified.

The guideline does not prohibit researchers from collecting personal data for non-research purposes, but it does require full transparency to consumers and a clear contract with the client that explains the client’s responsibility, and potential legal liability, for holding personally identifiable data.

The Passive Observation guideline also states: ‘A data record on its own may not identify an individual, but in conjunction with other linked data records, an individual may be ‘identifiable’. Researchers should use conservative approaches to data release and transfer – bearing in mind our wish to retain special status for market research data.’

ESOMAR hopes that its first version of the guideline will act as a useful contribution to the public debate about the use of social media for research and other purposes, as well as helping researchers to act ethically and professionally in this very new area of research.

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