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Willis, R. (2019). Observations online: Finding the ethical boundaries of Facebook research. Research Ethics, 15(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016117740176


Informed consent may be unobtainable in online contexts. This article examines the difficulties of obtaining informed consent online through a Facebook case study. It is proposed that there are at least two ways informed consent could be waived in research: first, if the data are public, and second, if the data are textual. Accordingly, the publicness of the Facebook News Feed is considered. Taking account of the wide availability of Facebook users’ data, and reflecting on how public those users perceive their information to be, this paper argues that some Facebook data are properly viewed as public to semi-public in nature. A second issue is whether the Facebook News Feed data collection ought to be classified as document-based or human subjects research. Since the Facebook News Feed involves social interaction that may elicit ‘ethically important moments’, this paper proposes that observing it may constitute human subjects research. While informed consent is desirable for human subjects research, it is suggested that Facebook News Feed observations are comparable to observational research in a public space, and thus waiving informed consent in this online setting could be justifiable.