When an ethical issue comes up during online qualitative research, researchers should look to one of the AOIR’s key guiding principles for ethical decision making in Internet research:
“The greater the vulnerability of the community/author/participant, the greater the obligation of the researcher to protect the community/author/participant.”
There’s a general misconception that whenever something is posted online, it automatically becomes part of the public sphere. However, Internet communities and message boards are something of a gray area because members often assume that their thoughts and opinions will remain private. Whereas on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, buried somewhere in the fine print of the user agreement, is the condition that all posts or “Tweets” become part of the public domain unless the user chooses to make them private.
I believe researchers should carefully consider the subject matter of the online community before beginning data collection. In cases where extremely personal issues, like sexual abuse, are discussed, researchers should always inform users of their intentions and receive permission before using their remarks in research. Those who join online health-related communities, like cancer support forums, do so out of a desire to connect with and lend support to those in similar situations, not be guinea pigs for research. Most would not appreciate their remarks being published in a study without their permission.
Should people in online communities expect privacy? Or are their remarks fair game for researchers?