Journal of Medical Internet Research
Social networks such as Twitter offer the clinical research community a novel opportunity for engaging potential study participants based on user activity data. However, the availability of public social media data has led to new ethical challenges about respecting user privacy and the appropriateness of monitoring social media for clinical trial recruitment. Researchers have voiced the need for involving users’ perspectives in the development of ethical norms and regulations.
This study examined the attitudes and level of concern among Twitter users and nonusers about using Twitter for monitoring social media users and their conversations to recruit potential clinical trial participants.
We used two online methods for recruiting study participants: the open survey was (1) advertised on Twitter between May 23 and June 8, 2017, and (2) deployed on TurkPrime, a crowdsourcing data acquisition platform, between May 23 and June 8, 2017. Eligible participants were adults, 18 years of age or older, who lived in the United States. People with and without Twitter accounts were included in the study.
While nearly half the respondents—on Twitter (94/603, 15.6%) and on TurkPrime (509/603, 84.4%)—indicated agreement that social media monitoring constitutes a form of eavesdropping that invades their privacy, over one-third disagreed and nearly 1 in 5 had no opinion. A chi-square test revealed a positive relationship between respondents’ general privacy concern and their average concern about Internet research (PP=.001) and whether they consider Twitter monitoring for clinical trial recruitment as eavesdropping (PP=.003). As Twitter literacy increased, so did people’s concerns about researchers monitoring Twitter activity. Our data support the previously suggested use of the nonexceptionalist methodology for assessing social media in research, insofar as social media-based recruitment does not need to be considered exceptional and, for most, it is considered preferable to traditional in-person interventions at physical clinics. The expressed attitudes were highly contextual, depending on factors such as the type of disease or health topic (eg, HIV/AIDS vs obesity vs smoking), the entity or person monitoring users on Twitter, and the monitored information.
The data and findings from this study contribute to the critical dialogue with the public about the use of social media in clinical research. The findings suggest that most users do not think that monitoring Twitter for clinical trial recruitment constitutes inappropriate surveillance or a violation of privacy. However, researchers should remain mindful that some participants might find social media monitoring problematic when connected with certain conditions or health topics. Further research should isolate factors that influence the level of concern among social media users across platforms and populations and inform the development of more clear and consistent guidelines.
Reuter, Katja; Zhu, Yifan; Angyan, Praveen; Le, NamQuyen; Merchant, Akil A.; and Zimmer, Michael, "Public Concern About Monitoring Twitter Users and Their Conversations to Recruit for Clinical Trials: Survey Study" (2019). Computer Science Faculty Research and Publications. 29.