Your Tweets Can Be Used For Science – With Or Without Your Permission, CU Boulder Explains

Mar 22, 2018

The news that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to develop political ads has reignited a national discussion about expectations of privacy online. A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder turns the focus to another social media giant: Twitter. The study found that 62 percent of Twitter users were unaware their tweets are freely available to researchers.

Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at CU Boulder and lead author on the study, says that Twitter’s privacy policy allows tweets to be gathered by researchers without notifying the site’s users.

“A lot of times your tweet is one in a data set of millions and an algorithm is analyzing it in this giant data set,” said Fiesler. “So not only will you probably never know that your tweet contributed to science but no one else will know either.”

Fiesler and her co-author, Nicholas Proferes, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, surveyed nearly 300 Twitter users for their study. It’s the first study in a series looking at the ethics of using public social media for research.

The appeal of using Twitter and other social media as data sources is just how much information they make available.

“Something like Twitter just has a huge amount of information about people about how they act, about how they feel, and it’s all just publicly available,” said Fiesler.

While that may be great for researchers, users aren’t universally fans of being unwitting partners in science. 20 percent of those surveyed said they were generally uncomfortable with their tweets being used in research without their knowledge or consent.

63 percent said they would not want comments that they deleted used in a study – something that Fiesler said happens often -- and 55 percent said they would not want one of their tweets with their username attached quoted in a published research paper.

But Fiesler said that the research can be used for good. One of Fiesler’s colleagues uses Twitter to track flu patterns and symptoms based on people tweeting about getting flu shots, going to the doctor and having flu-like symptoms.

Her goal, she said, isn’t to cause a mass social media exodus. It’s just about awareness.

“I never want my work to suggest that people should stop using social media, that they should lock down all their information for fear that someone might use it in an unexpected way,” said Fiesler. “It is important for people to realize that there are other uses of your social media content than what you intend”