CU part of $3M NSF grant to study social media issues, cultural, ethical impacts

Tuesday September 12, 2017 0 comments Tags: Boulder, CU Boulder, Casey Fiesler

BOULDER -- CU Boulder is one of six institutions that will share a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to study Facebook, Twitter and other social media issues.

Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, will lead CU’s effort under the NSF grant.

The four-year PERVADE (Pervasive Data Ethics for Computational Research) project aims to come up with guidance for researchers, policymakers and consumers around a burgeoning and at times controversial field so new it lacks widely accepted ethical standards.CU_logoUSE_1

“Thanks to the Internet, we now have this vast amount of information about human behavior that can help us answer very important questions,” said Fiesler, noting that researchers mine everything from tweets to Instagram photos to publicly shared health data and comments on news articles.

“This is great for science, but we have to make sure that the ways we go about answering these questions are ethical and take into account the privacy and ownership concerns of the people creating the data.”

CU said several recent high-profile instances have raised ethical questions about Big Data research:

In 2014, Facebook and Cornell University researchers published a study in which they manipulated the news feeds of Facebook users for one week, prioritizing positive content for some and negative content for others, to see if it changed the tone of the users’ posts. (It did).

The “emotional contagion study” sparked widespread debate about whether Facebook users should have been asked for consent.

In another case, Danish researchers raised concerns about privacy when they shared a dataset in a web forum for social science researchers containing sensitive information from 70,000 users of an online dating site.

And scientists sometimes quote social media posts verbatim in research papers on sensitive topics, making it possible for journalists or others reading the study to identify who posted it.

“Most people have no idea this is happening and who might be reading their content," Fiesler said. “They tend to vastly underestimate who can see it.”

While universities have institutional review boards that oversee the ethics of research conducted on humans, research on data created by humans rests in a gray area, she said.

The PERVADE team hopes to help fill the gap, first by assessing challenges surrounding the research and then offering empirically based educational tools to researchers and consumers.

“By empowering researchers with information about the norms and risks of big-data research, we can make sure that users of any digital platform are only involved in research in ways they don’t find surprising or unfair,” said co-investigator Katie Shilton, associate professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.

The team also includes researchers from the University of California, Irvine; Princeton University; the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and the Data and Society Research Institute.

Of the $3 million grant, Fiesler received more than $400,000, which she said she will use to assess user knowledge and perceptions of Big Data research and its legal and ethical implications.

“As technology changes, ethical norms have to constantly evolve to keep up,” Fiesler said. “Just because data is easy to get doesn’t mean we should do whatever we like with it.”