In this paper, a new type of examination based on social media is introduced involving Facebook.com. This research is known to be the first of its kind to have been made publicly accessible to other researchers. The information given was to attract other scholars of diverse interest in studying the relation between “virtual” and “real life.” However, the ethical standpoint is questioned on how well the researchers adhered the principle or “voluntary, informed consent”? And was this research fair treatment of all subjects?
According to the Tastes, Ties, and Time(2008), researchers with the permission from Facebook and the university, the researchers first accessed facebook on March 10th and 11th in order to download a profile and network data provided by a group of college students. The population they chose was the freshman class of 2009 at Harvard University. “Out of the 1,640 freshmen students enrolled at the college, 97.4% maintained facebook profiles at the time of the download and 59.2% of the students had currently updated their facebook within 5 days(Lewis, Kaufman, Gonzalez, Wimmer, Christakis , 2008).” The university also provided data that allowed the researchers a link to each of the subjects profile with an official student housing record. According to Harvard university, “the student information was assured with privacy by converting all of the students names to numerical identifiers and removed all other information that could be traced back to an individual(Lewis, Kaufman, Gonzalez, Wimmer, Christakis , 2008).” However, summer of 2006, the researchers came back to evaluate the past research in order to create new information. The new research creeped upon students who uploaded personal pictures, broadcasted being members of certain ethnic clubs, and school associations. When evaluating subjects that did not have a Facebook account, they constructed their information based on race and ethnicity. Which led to the conclusion that 99% of the population that the researchers had targeted was based on race and ethnicity.
The Tastes, Ties, and Time(2008) researchers were accused of a “failure to adhere to ethical research standards” due to the fact that the students had never given consent to have their information taken. The identities of some participants were eventually determined based on the uniqueness of the information that was given to them. Further, some participants were identified by being a member of an underrepresented minority group. In addition to criticism from academics, newspaper articles appeared with headlines such as “Harvard researchers accused of breaching students’ privacy”. This project stirred an ongoing controversy regarding confidentiality within Facebook research. Ultimately, the dataset was removed from the Internet, to where it can no longer be used by any researcher.
The ethics of internet research has evolved into a significant area of concern as research has increased. There should be an awareness that the internet is a public domain that lead to the widespread of human application when it involves internet research. Human subjects research ethics, regard the rights of the human subject as primary and the aims of the researcher as secondary. There are people’s rights at stake in that also conflict other than the issues of privacy and safety.