Ethics of Studying Online Communities

Joseph Reagle


Distinguish ethical vs illegal?

contrary to a system/consensus of acceptable behavior
merits social sanctions on condemned behavior (fines or jail)

Research Ethics

Belmont principles

IRBs often focus on:




Our class

No formal interviews nor IRB review, but we should be sensitive to the issues.

Note that paraphrases and quotations of “research participants” (those you interact with) should not be cited, but they can be discussed.

“Tod [a pseudonym] became frustrated with my media switching, complaining that ‘You are driving me crazy!’” (See the APA’s Let’s Talk About Research Participants.)

Social breaching

Wikipedia reflection

FB and OkCupid

ex. Apply Belmont

Apply the Belmont principles to the FB case.

  1. Did they get IRB approval?
  2. Did they follow the Belmont principles
    • respect for persons (informed consent)
    • beneficence
    • justice
  3. Does the Common Rule apply to private companies?
  4. Was FB’s research unethical? Should it be illegal?

What was Rudder’s argument?

Do you agree?

(Rudder 2014)


Mnemonic for Belmont principles?

gotta respect the benefits of being in the justice league


For each of the Belmont principles:

  1. Define each in your own words, and
  2. give a hypothetical example of a online researcher violating the principle.