Social Media & Data Collection

While browsing the CBC news website last week, this article piqued my interest. To briefly summarize, the article discussed a new project being carried out by the University of Ottawa called “social web mining and sentiment analysis for mental illness detection.” This project was recently granted $464,100 in funding by the Federal Government. The project is going to explore the use of social media data in screening for individuals at risk for mental health issues. According to the CBC article, Diana Inkpen who is spearheading the project, said her team’s goal is to create a set of tools that can be used by doctors, psychologists, school counselors and research groups, among others, to flag concerning patterns in posts made by social media users.

The team at Ottawa U uses text-mining algorithms to pick up different patterns within the public data sets and to predict what these patterns mean. The article states that a doctor whose patient has agreed to be monitored in this way could receive an automatic alert should concerns like extremely negative emotions or negative emotions that appear repeatedly over time arise. This whole concept seems bizarre to me, I personally don’t like the idea of being monitored like this, but I can see the value in how this kind of data could truly help people and I think as long as the patient consented to this type of monitoring, then there really is no harm in it. However, the article really got me thinking about who collects our social media data and what do they do with that information?

Every day tens of millions of people post things to social media, and that data is collected and analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends and associations relating to human behaviour and interactions. Every minute, there are 2.5 million new Facebook posts and 1.7 million Instagram likes. The data collected is analyzed and used for marketing purposes, to study the health of a specific community, to pinpoint flu outbreaks and so much more. So, who is collecting this data about us? Pretty much everyone, from the manufacturers of voice activated TVs, the government, corporations and individuals. This is a good reminder that everything…EVERYTHING we post on the internet is PUBLIC regardless of privacy settings.

In 2012, Facebook came under fire for an experiment they conducted where they manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700 000 users to see if the content posted in the feeds would have an effect on the user’s future posts. People were angry and questioned the ethics of manipulating users accounts and using people as subjects in an experiment without their consent.


So, the question can be asked, is it ethical for scientists, businesses or the government to conduct these types of studies using correspondence from people’s social media conversations without their consent? I think many of us (myself included) would say no, but to the researchers who are given unlimited amounts of data for virtually no cost, this is a huge opportunity. What do you think?

As we move towards a world increasingly ruled by technology, we are going to have to start making more and more decisions as consumers whether to buy “smart” products which our personal data can be collected from or that can be hacked for negative purposes and we are going to have to be even more aware that our internet activity and our activities on social media are being monitored and used for all kinds of different objectives.


One thought on “Social Media & Data Collection

  1. Great minds think alike! I also wrote a blog post about the CBC article on the study of social media data patterns and mental health alerts. I took a different approach to the article, but privacy is always a big concern when it comes to online data. It is becoming a more prominent and contentious issue every year (see the current case of the US govt vs. Apple). I think it is foolish to assume that what you do online is not monitored and collected – mainly to be used and sold for advertising purposes. I think it is wonderful to use this data for the greater good, but consent must also play a part in this, as noted in the article the person would have to opt-in to being monitoring and having someone alerted. I think the data use for research is important, but that privacy should maintained and not divulged outside the study and not in the research paper.

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