2014: The Future of Internet Research

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In June 2014, the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) published results from a large-scale, psychological study on emotional contagion collected over the course of a week in 2012, on the social media platform, Facebook. In this study, Facebook randomly perturbed the news feeds of thousands of users in order to study how people respond to the emotional valences of posts on Facebook. A strong reaction from the public followed PNAS’ publishing of the research results, raising questions about the role of individual consent in massive online studies, the use of data generated by people on social media sitesfor research, and the ethical principles and laws governing the use of social media data and online content for study purposes.

Researchers Mary L. Gray, PhD, and Christian Sandvig, PhD, and Elizabeth Buchanan, PhD, discussed the Facebook emotional contagion study and focus on some of the commonly raised questions pertaining to internet and social media research. Some additional questions that presenters discussed included:

  • Use of social data in research:
    • How do we decide if social data is personal information, interpersonal communication, or social interaction? What are the ethical principles that accompany the framing of data in each case?
    • What criteria and considerations should researchers review to determine when social data are a secondary or primary data set?
    • Is it possible to bridge the gap between researchers at universities and researchers at industries using social data for scientific inquiry? What role might university-based IRBs play in supporting this bridge?
  • Consent and debriefing:
    • How can consent and debriefing strategies be redesigned to scale up beyond the lab or field setting to fit social data analysis?
    • How do we assess minimal risk in online settings?
    • How do we determine what constitutes publicly available information, communication, or social interaction vs private information, communication, or social interaction?

This intermediate-level webinar was of interest to IRB members, chairs, directors, and administrators, as well as investigators or anyone else involved in conducting or reviewing internet research.


Elizabeth Buchanan, PhD, is endowed chair in ethics and director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin(UW)-Stout. She is a scholar in the fields of research ethics, information/communication technology ethics, and research methods. Her work is particularly focused on the intersections of research regulation, internet or online venues and tools, and the subsequent ethical challenges that arise for researchers and research board reviewers. 

Dr. Buchanan serves as leadership director and vice-chair of the UW-Stout IRB, and has served on both social science and medical school research ethics boards. She has presented her National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research on IRBs and internet research to the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014. She has also presented at the Office for Human Research Protections Community Research Forums, and has done professional development work with many IRBs, including the Department of Energy, Rockefeller Clinical and Translational Science Center, New York University, and Columbia University, among others. Dr. Buchanan has presented conference sessions, pre-conference programs, and webinar for Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R) since 2008, and has served on various PRIM&R Conference Planning Committees since 2012. Dr. Buchanan has also been a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility since 2012. 

Dr. Buchanan was a visiting research fellow in 2008-09 at the University of Oxford's E-Social Science Center, and has been a lecturer at the Upper Austrian University of Applied Science in Hagenberg, Austria since 2010. She was a visiting scholar at the University of Hyderabad in India in 2014.

Her most recent research was funded by the NSF, and examined computer science pedagogy and ethics in graduate computer and information science education. Recent publications include co-authored recommendations on internet research ethics to SACHRP; an article in Lecture Notes in Computer Science titled “The New Normal: Revisiting Internet Research Ethics”; an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entitled Internet Research Ethics; and a chapter on research ethics in the volume Research, Evaluation and Audit (Facet Publishing). Dr. Buchanan is the editor of one of the first anthologies of internet research ethics (Readings in Virtual Research Ethics, 2004), and is author and/or co-author to numerous papers on research ethics and methods in such venues as Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Computers and Society, and the Blackwell Handbook of Internet Studies. Elizabeth is also primary co-author to the Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Guidelines for Internet Research. She holds Bachelor's degrees in philosophy and English from Rutgers University, and earned her Master’s and PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Mary L. Gray, PhD, is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and an associate Professor in the Media School, with adjunct appointments in American Studies, Anthropology, and Gender Studies, at Indiana University. She studied anthropology before receiving her PhD in communication from the University of California, San Diego in 2004. Her research looks at how media access and everyday uses of technologies transform people's lives. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York University Press, 2009), honored by scholarly societies representing anthropology, media studies, and sociology, examined how young people in the rural United States use digital media to negotiate queer identities, local belonging, and connections to broader, imagined communities. Mary's current book project, co-authored with Siddharth Suri, examines the future of employment through present day case studies of crowdwork on four different crowdsourcing platforms, comparing workers' experiences in the United States and India. Mary served on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association from 2008 through 2010 and is the Executive Program Chair for the Association's 113th Annual Meeting.

Christian Sandvig, PhD, is Steelcase Research Professor and associate professor at the University of Michigan, appointed in the Communication Studies Department, the Institute for Social Research, and the School of Information. He is also a faculty associate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. His research investigates the societal consequences of new digital media infrastructures. He also studies and teaches about new research methods and co-edited the forthcoming book, "Digital Research Confidential: Studying Human Behavior Online" (MIT Press). Sandvig is a computer programmer with industry experience consulting for a Fortune 500 company, a regional government, and a San Francisco Bay Area software start-up. He received the PhD in Communication from Stanford University in 2002 and previously served as a visiting researcher at Intel Research, MIT, McGill University, and Oxford University. His peer-reviewed writing received “best paper” awards from six scholarly associations. Sandvig is a recipient of the US National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award (NSF CAREER) in the area of Human-Centered Computing and was named a "next-generation leader" in science and technology policy by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Certificates of Attendance

Certificates of attendance for the The Future of Internet Research: What We Can Learn from the Facebook Emotional Contagion Study webinar were made available at the conclusion of the webinar. To access the certificate, you must first complete the online evaluation. Such certificates are useful for obtaining continuing education (CE) credits (not Continuing Medical Education credits) from professional associations. Note that guidelines concerning CE credits may differ, and you should consult the appropriate professional association representative for further guidance.

CE Credit for Certified IRB Professional (CIP®) Recertification
Webinar participants holding the CIP credential who wish to apply credits from The Future of Internet Research: What We Can Learn from the Facebook Emotional Contagion Study toward CIP recertification may submit the Certificate of Attendance they received upon completing the online evaluation as documentation of their participation. Participation in this 90-minute webinar counts as 1.5 CE credit hours.

For recertification by CE, CIPs must complete 30 documented hours of continuing education. At least 15 of the 30 hours must either carry credits issued by a recognized accrediting body or have received advanced recognition from the Council for Certification of IRB Professionals (CCIP). Credits from PRIM&R webinars have received such advance recognition, and may be counted towards these 15 hours.

Additional information about CIP recertification can be found here.