Hidden Flaws in Performing Social Media Research

Facebook’s security team posted a blog on February 15th stating that sometime last month, its website was hacked.  The perpetrator was not named, if they were even in fact known, but Facebook did state that no sensitive information was stolen.  Even more unsettling was that Facebook mentioned that it was only one of a multitude of other companies that were hit by the attack.  An ongoing investigation is being conducted by Facebook’s, “…own internal engineering teams, with security teams at other companies, and with law enforcement authorities to learn everything we can about the attack, and how to prevent similar incidents in the future.”


What is disturbing is that Twitter just revealed that it was also hacked earlier this month.  This attack did have the possibility though of 250,000 accounts and their login information, including emails, being stolen.  While this may be a small chunk of the more than 200 million accounts on Twitter, it makes a stomach uneasy to think of how many accounts could have had information withdrawn from them.


More recently, starting on February 18th, the Twitter accounts of both Burger King and Jeep were hacked.  Burger King’s was made to look like McDonald’s and Jeep’s page was changed to state that it was sold to Cadillac due to employees doing pain meds in the bathroom.  While these hacks seem to be less severe it still goes to show that hacks happen and can happen often.


So what does this all mean about using social media as a research tool?  It was stated in Facebook’s blog post that the hacks were traced to a handful of employees visiting a website that had been compromised which led to malware being installed on their devices.  The blog described the PC’s that were at fault as being, “…protected by the latest anti-virus software and were equipped with other up-to-date protection.”  This is just a pure and simple example that portrays the Internet will never be 100% safe.  Anti-virus and software alike are just like the flu shot you hate to get before the winter months, a tiny dosing of last year’s popular strains with no guarantee that something new won’t come along to infect you.


How can accurate and meaningful research be performed on social media when, as of late, it seems to be so effortless to hack into an account and create false information?  The falsification of data is not something that a company doing research to determine how they will proceed in the future wants to have running about its sample.  Imagine a competing company creating false data to lead their opposition in the wrong direction.  Laid out here is only the beginning of the ideas that are possible with current security measures taken in social media.  Does this mean that social media should not be used at all?  If so, will it ever be safe to use in studies?


The Digital Policy Institute is putting on a free webinar on April 26th, starting at 1 p.m. EST that hopes to open up some ideas and issues pertaining to the use of social media in research.  We ask you to please join us for this virtual event where some of the leading minds in the industry stir things up.  Also, at 2:30 p.m. EST, we will be following up with another webinar with discussions about the upcoming Incentive Auctions.


Written by:


Chris Goepfrich & Steve Jones, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Information and Communication Sciences at Ball State University