How to Ethically Use Social Media Data

What we share on social media can be pretty revealing, personal, intimate.

And so, you’d think (hope) an industry that listens to these conversations would be careful to respect the people they’re listening to… right?

We checked. We couldn’t find any standardised or binding ethical guidelines for the social intelligence industry.

We think there should be.

For us, the central question is – how to be ethical when dealing with data that’s in the public domain? One argument is, that it’s there and so fair game.

We don’t agree. The question of consent is far too murky for that to hold much water.

So, as the saying goes, what doesn’t exist you have to create yourself.

Here it is. A checklist. A starter for 10. A set of principles to help you collect and use social media data in a way that respects people’s safety, integrity and privacy. It is based on our own data collection practices, developed and fine-tuned over many years of social media research.

  1. Only collect data that has been shared in a public social space. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not to gain access to a closed community. If you want access to their data, ask – and then respect their decision.
  2. Check that your social listening platform has agreements in place with social media platforms to access their data.
  3. Remember that access to social media sites can and does change (remember Facebook and Instagram), don’t assume what’s ok today will still be ok 6 months down the line.
  4. Remove identifiable information about individuals (e.g. post URLs, Usernames) to make sure they cannot be found.
  5. Keep only what you need, ditch the rest.
  6. Set a time to delete your social media data after use. It’s good practice, saves on storage and prevents ‘forgotten data’ from being used beyond its original purpose.
  7. Analyse groups of people and report back in aggregate so that you’re commenting on the lives of groups of people rather than an individual (who might then be identifiable).
  8. Protect people’s anonymity by obscuring any quotes you use (e.g. change a few words without altering the overall meaning) to make sure data can’t be traced back using Google.
  9. Blur out faces if you are using images shared online.
  10. Train your team and make sure they understand their roles as guardians of other people’s privacy (a good thought experiment here is to workshop what to do if they read something from someone they know…)

Whether you are an established business or just starting out, we hope you find this useful. Above all, we hope that you too want to make the social listening industry a positive force for change on social media.

To find out how you can best conduct your social intelligence research in a responsible and ethical matter, get in touch with us at

By Louise Alestam

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