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 by government (e.g., 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 emotional contagion

ex. Apply Belmont

Apply the Belmont principles to the FB case (Grohol 2014).

  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?

Reddit and Reagle

“Disguising Reddit sources and the efficacy of ethical research”

“Spinning Words As Disguise: Shady Services For Ethical Research?””

“Even pseudonyms and throwaways delete their Reddit posts”

Independent ethical research

What is an API?

Twitter (2023-Feb)

Twitter’s most affordable API tier, at $100 a month, would only allow third parties to collect 10,000 per month. That’s just 0.3 percent of what they previously had free access to in a single day … its “outrageously expensive” enterprise tier … wasn’t enough to conduct some ambitious studies or maintain important tools. (Calma 2023)

Reddit (2023-May)

Questions for researchers

Privacy: What rights and power should people hold over their participation in independent research, and what kind of data sharing is justifiable between researchers?

Ethics: what relationship and obligations should independent researchers have with the people whose data we are studying? What forces will ensure that researchers face consequences for abusing their power? (LukitoMatiasGilbert 2023)

Gatekeeping: who should be allowed to carry out independent research?

Our interviews revealed four key tactics: centering the human, increasing agency and awareness, protecting data, and being proactive. (LukitoMatiasGilbert 2023)


Mnemonic for Belmont principles?

. . .

gotta respect the benefits of being in the justice league

just B respectful


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.