Ethical Dilemmas in Researching Social Media Campaigns on Sensitive Personal Issues: Lessons from the Study of British Disability Dissent Networks

Posted: 25 Oct 2012 Last revised: 18 Apr 2017

See all articles by Filippo Trevisan

Filippo Trevisan

American University - School of Communication

Paul Reilly

University of Leicester

Date Written: October 20, 2012


This paper discusses an unconventional approach to addressing key ethical dilemmas in the context of analysing, presenting, and discussing politically charged personal content posted on social media. Interest in online research ethics has grown exponentially over the past decade, generating a burgeoning sub-field of internet studies. However, we contend that there are two flaws in the scholarly framework that has been applied to these issues to date. First, many social scientists have assumed that the internet should be treated as a “monolithic” independent variable, neglecting the crucial nuances that distinguish different digital media from one another. Second, contributions in this area have frequently sought to isolate internet ethics from both the surrounding offline context and specific research traditions. This lack of grounding in individual disciplines has restricted the scope for reflexivity, particularly in relation to the usefulness of existing guidelines in specific research contexts.

By articulating ethical concerns as theoretical issues rather than mere practical recommendations, this paper aims to provide researchers of online politics with an open and flexible framework for the development of solutions to ethical issues. In particular, examples drawn from the study of social media use in contemporary British disability activism are discusses with a view to identifying specific ethical dilemmas in relation to the expanding overlap between “personal” and “political” in online platforms, the critical appraisal of recommended strategies, and the sharing of best practice. As such, four principles are highlighted that could enhance future online research in this area: that excessive ethical “conservatism” is falsely safe and may in fact generate greater ethical dilemmas than it solves; that concentrating on “sensitive issues” rather “vulnerable groups” can help deliver high(er) ethical standards; that the granularity generated by direct quotes of user-generated content can be both misleading and harmful; that creative solutions to this problem can be found, yet practices that may generate a distortion in the message(s) posted by users should also be assessed against the overarching aims of a given study’s specific research field(s).

Keywords: ethics, internet, political communication, disability, qualitative methods

Suggested Citation

Trevisan, Filippo and Reilly, Paul, Ethical Dilemmas in Researching Social Media Campaigns on Sensitive Personal Issues: Lessons from the Study of British Disability Dissent Networks (October 20, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Filippo Trevisan (Contact Author)

American University - School of Communication ( email )

Mary Graydon Center
4400 Massachusetts Av. NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

Paul Reilly

University of Leicester ( email )

University Road
Leicester, LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

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