The Ethics of Social Network Analytics

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Many of us are free and easy with our posts and tweets across our various social networks and online communities. We choose not to self-censor our thoughts before making them known to the world. However, as long as our privacy settings are properly set, we can control who sees our latest political tirade, blow-by-blow account of the flu, or most awesome meal we just prepared at home. Or can we?

Social Network Analysis

The data available in the social sphere is priceless to companies and their marketing partners. It is easier than ever for them to see who you know, what you and your friends like, and how you all are interconnected with different businesses, web sites and social communities. Your employer and prospective employers can all gather that same data about you too.

The law enforcement sector has also become an expert user of social network analysis to expose criminal relationships and predict illegal behaviors. Every now and then, we watch this play out on the news when the police arrest a suspect after they brag about a crime or post stolen goods on their Facebook page. We also see it in larger investigations as the FBI and other agencies work to uncover would-be terrorists and possible plots.

First Amendment Rights

If we must watch what we say on social media so as to not be misconstrued by third-parties, are we sacrificing our First Amendment right to free speech? Courts across America are consumed with that same question, trying to determine what defines proper use of social media.

Take the case of a man who was prosecuted for using Facebook as a forum in which to make threats to his soon-to-be ex-wife. These supposed threats were posted in the rhyming style of rap and hip hop artists, who are highly paid for misogynistic and violent language.

The man in question drew a parallel to those entertainers, suggesting that he was simply practicing artistic freedom in alignment with his First Amendment rights. Was he really, or was he using the Constitution to keep himself out of jail? Either way, the court sided against him.

This case should remind us all that there are limits to our freedom of speech – regardless of the medium – when it comes to “libel, incitement, obscenity and fighting words.

Net Neutrality

Net neutrality gives everyone the opportunity to have a voice in the social conversation. Arguments against open Internet access and usage raise ethical questions about equal rights within a forum we have not previously considered.

Comprising net neutrality would give Internet providers control over what we can or cannot view based on various service and pricing models. As we continue to evolve social channels toward more content-heavy information sharing, this action would clearly discriminate against lower income persons and publicly funded organizations such as libraries and schools.<

Privacy Issues

There is an argument that most of us gave up our right to privacy the day we first put our name on the Internet, be it for an online purchase, to post a resume or join a social community. Identity theft is rampant and that should be our real worry. Or so goes the debate on the side of social network analysis.

The truth is that the data collected from social network analysis does delve deep into our private lives – who we know, what bands we like, the books we read, the places we visit, and so on. It might be too late to be invisible, but we can certainly question the validity of the information being collected about us.

A great deal of social data is visualized the form of a graph that shows our connections across a wide spectrum. These connections can be weighed against different parameters to determine the strength of the relationships. What the data cannot tell us is the true nature of the relationships that emerge from the data model. There is still a level of privacy that remains.