Maintaining Ethics in the Digital World
In recent years, market research has come to embrace new and innovative forms of data collection techniques, in particular via online or digital platforms. This is reflective of a global trend whereby consumers are spending more and more time online, voluntarily sharing large chunks of information across different social media platforms.
From blogs and microblogs, to online forums, virtual worlds, online gaming spaces, etc., these platforms are storing huge mountains of user generated data and customer profiles. Tapping into these stores of data potentially heralds infinite opportunities for market researchers and marketers alike. However, the question of much contention relates to whether a different set of rules should apply to the collection of data on virtual platforms and in real life.
The boundaries between what is considered public and private in the online world are becoming increasingly blurred. Although platforms such as Facebook or Twitter allow users to control how public their posts are, the question remains whether posting information (intended for friends) in public spaces automatically means that users also accept for such information to be used for other purposes?
In light of these questions, as well as growing debates regarding privacy in a digital era, frameworks are being developed to provide researchers with a workable approach towards ethical decision-making. Whilst each platform inevitably has different terms and conditions of use, addressing these new ethical challenges will require looking at the interplay of different factors, such as the kind of information being gathered, the probable end-use of the data, how the data will be reported and published, etc.
Regardless of the formal steps to be taken, researchers must always aim to be as transparent as possible. This includes avoiding misleading or unsolicited data-collection techniques, taking conservative precautions when researching the U18 group, making their presence clear when possible and providing clarity as to the information they are looking to gather and who will have access to it.
Given the availability of large-scale data sets that are easily accessible at low costs, leveraging social media for research purposes may well be tempting. However, if social media research is to continue to evolve, participants’ privacy must be respected regardless of the platform selected.