Why it can be problematic and when it can make sense
When you’re first learning how to write academic papers, you’ll often be told to use scholarly or peer-reviewed sources to support your claims or as evidence of an opposing viewpoint. In fact, you might not even be allowed to cite any online sources or at least not “popular” sources, such as Wikipedia, personal or company websites or blogs, and social media posts.
In general, this is good advice. It’s very important to get in the habit of basing your research on the best sources you can find – sources that are as free as possible of bias, that have been reviewed by other academics in the same field, and that don’t contain outdated or false information. Most recently written academic journal articles and books should tick these boxes (whether they’re in physical or digital format). But a lot of information available only online can as well: online databases containing articles and conference papers, open access journals, and government websites offering reports and statistics are just some places to find reliable information online.
Where it gets tricky is when you have online information that doesn’t come from a source whose credibility and objectivity can be easily ascertained. This is the case with sites like Wikipedia, or blogs and information found on social media. We’ve looked at Wikipedia in a previous blog post, so if you’re curious to know when you should and shouldn’t use it in your research process, you can read about that here.
The main issue with social media
Why, in general, should you not cite social media posts? Well, just think of your own posting habits. Do all your posts contain conclusions based on research you’ve done or based on your reading of reliable sources in the field? Were your comments reviewed for accuracy by your peers?
Of course not, right? Most of us will fairly spontaneously share our opinions, a quick snapshot, or the latest viral cat video when using these platforms, which is perfectly fine. Social media isn’t intended as an academic communication tool, but is instead primarily meant for sharing opinions, experiences, and emotions with our friends, family and acquaintances. So, if your Aunt Sally who does not have any ties to NASA posts on social media that “humans never landed on the moon, gosh darn it!” you obviously shouldn’t regard her as a credible source and treat her opinion as a fact to be cited in one of your papers.
In addition, people sometimes post under pseudonyms and fake accounts are common. So, unless you know someone personally or can somehow verify that it’s them, they might not be who they say they are, and you should take their statements with a big grain of salt.
Other problems with social media
Beyond the problem of credibility, there are some other issues involved with citing social media posts. First, there’s the issue of permanence. As is the case for all web content, social media can be ephemeral. Someone might not pay hosting fees and then their blog goes offline forever. Or, a political party might delete a controversial Tweet. An entire platform can even disappear, as was the case with the video platform Vine. If you cite from any of these sources, your readers would then no longer be able to locate the source unless you saved a copy of the post, for example as a PDF in Citavi.
Another point is the issue of access. If you cite a non-public post, your readers will likely not be able to see the post and verify its use in your paper. Other apps and platforms can require registration, payment, or download before access is possible.
Despite the issues of credibility, permanence, and access, it can sometimes make sense to cite social media. For one thing, not all social media is created equal. For example, a carefully made and researched YouTube video on quantum mechanics from a university professor and your friend’s Instagram picture of his lunch are both considered “social media”, but the video would be a credible source to cite in a paper on the same topic. As with any source (even books and articles that look scholarly), it’s key to assess the work’s credibility and then decide for yourself if it should be used. The University of Maryland offers a good list of questions you can ask yourself to help with this.
Another thing to consider is who is making a particular statement on social media. For example, if you’re writing a paper about diplomatic strategy, you might decide to cite an incendiary Tweet from a world leader as a negative example, but you likely wouldn’t cite a computer programmer’s opinion.
And what about your friend’s picture of his lunch? Surprisingly, there may even be a time and place for citing this type of content as well! If you’re writing a paper on international food trends, comparing the number of images saved with a particular hashtag and citing individual examples might be part of your research.
Here's a non-exhaustive list of some instances in which you might want to cite from social media:
- A leader in a particular field or in a particular position expressed their opinion about an issue in that field on social media.
- Your research examines people’s opinions and you will be citing social media posts as examples, rather than as facts.
- You’re researching how social media is used, for example for a paper on influencer marketing
- You’re analyzing social media posts as evidence for trends
- You want to use an image from social media in your work
- You want to cite information from a video or graphic posted by a credible expert or organization
- You want to cite information from a blog written by a credible expert or organization
As you can see, deciding whether or not to cite something on social media depends on your research topic and, if you’re going to use the posts for their informational value, on whether or not the information is credible. And keep in mind that even if you are citing from social media, you’ll still want to also rely on more traditional academic sources, such as journal articles and books, to inform your methods and to provide some helpful secondary literature.
Want to know exactly how to cite social media using reference management software? We’ll cover that topic in an upcoming blog article! Dying to know how to cite a TikTok clip, a comment on a Facebook post, or an Instagram story in a particular citation style? Then let us know on our Facebook page and we’ll include the example in our next post on this topic.
About Jennifer Schultz
Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.