The Virtual Knowledge Studio in Amsterdam offered an Ethics of (e)research Workshop on
Monday 15 June, which brought together post-graduate/doctoral students and researchers from various fields and a range of cultural backgrounds.
Below are the ethical dilemmas I anticipate to encounter in due course of my future research project which will investigate Digital Technologies [as research tool and objects] in the context of informal cognitive processes embedded in online social interaction which have repercussions on real world settings and experiences.
Methodology: based on a triangulatory approach, it will include a self-completed online survey, auto-ethnographic work as well as semi-structured focus-group interviews and content analysis. Inevitably, in particular the auto-ethnographic work conducted in the blogosphere and online social networks entails a range of possible ethical conflicts which I fear an Ethics Committee may subject to a one-size-fits-all policy that won’t take into account the following particularities:
- Participant Consent –fully informed and voluntary (FIV) – in retrospective?
Conversations and comments on blogs, tweets and retweets on Twitter and comments on Facebook status updates or semi-public debates via Facebook’s wall-to-wall feature: they cut across the public/private boundaries. Given that participants provide FIV consent, Ethics Committees should accept this as ethical research. However, danah boyd et al. have experienced considerable difficulties with retrospective consent in recent projects. Hence, a more ‘dynamic’ and contextualised/non-static model of ethical guidelines is still something we cannot take for granted when submitting our forms to the Ethics Committees.
- Public versus private, blurred boundaries and imagined risky/secure spaces
Are Facebook status updates private, semi-public or public? If forwarded by applications that support Twitter boundaries become blurred and even participants may differ in their perceptions, resulting in different participants demanding different levels of privacy (at different stages in the research) – or, maybe also requesting to categorise rather private messages as public for they may want to be heard and gain higher ‘online status’ (for instance on QDOS which calculate your virtual footprint). Imposing privacy might indeed cause harm when participants do rather desire publicity.
- Confidentiality and Anonymity
Are aspects closely related to point 2 above. Can we safely assume all participants desire anonymisation of their real name or pseudonym? How can I deal with texts/images and other media that evolve over time and contain various levels of confidentiality, for instance participant comments in 1:1 conversation (think Twitter DM [direct messaging], forwarded automatically to email, responded to by public tweet) and also in focus group follow-up interviews. I.e. naturalistic research in the first case vs. participatory research in the latter.
Moreover: cultural differences, expectations and needs may vary across age groups, perhaps even gender, and depend on social class background/educational level. Ideally, we are giving a voice to the interviewee/participant and promoting a level of equality, i.e. avoiding misrepresentation, paternalistic attitude and harm by all means – yet, we need to understand that positions are highly contextual and depend on subjective needs of participants rather than universal model of research ethics. Have ethics committes already arrived at that point?
- Power and Equality
Conducting research, collecting data and distributing findings may be greatly facilitated by online channels. The level of transparency can be high, and research participants may want to claim part-authorship for instance by using excerpts of the research report to be posted on their blog or website (or used in other media). A continued dialogue with participants, post-debriefing, may require further ethical decision-making beyond the levels common in other contexts. Again, not a one-size-fits-all ethical guideline but rather a case-by-case-based ethical decision making might be required. Will participants become involved in future amendments of ethical guidelines?
Finally, the participants’ levels of reflexivity and general awareness of research processes do seem to increase continuously while access to paths of personal and professional development of the researchers become ever more transparent and accessible. Will we need to learn to remind participants that they also need to behave ethically towards researchers? Are we progressing towards a more equal research-driven community and wider – globalised – society? Moreover, the researcher as the researched: my blog, my SNSs, my microblog, all the many profiles, traces left – can I expect research participants to act in an ethical manner in case they won’t agree with my findings (interpretations of findings, to be precise)?
On 18 December Vietnam approved new blogging restrictions that aim at regulating bloggers’ content which the government deems sensitive or inappropriate. National providers are requested to report and remove posts which
- undermine national security,
- incite violence or crime,
- disclose state secrets,
- or include inaccurate information that could damage the reputation of individuals and organizations.
The booming blogosphere which is growing fast into an alternative newsroom has provided a wakeup call to the government which is resorting to drastic measures of censorship. State-controlled media in a communist state is no longer the only source of information with bloggers seizing power and spreading what is perceived as harmful. The language itself is subject to regulations which encourage bloggers to write in ‘clean and healthy Vietnamese’.
Outside Vietnam, traditional media is getting increasingly under pressure. The Financial Times titled on 22 December: ‘Plane crash geek Twitters from burning Denver aircraft, Philippe Naughton’. Real-time citizen journalism also played a significant role in the recent Mumbai attacks when users posted the events in 140 character messages into the online sphere. Twitter had come under attack for providing terrorists at the scene with information about the situation.
Giving away some of the power traditional or state-owned media used to hold is still widely perceived as inviting anarchism and social chaos. Societies and governments are going through the very challenging processes of getting used to listening to their people’s views – who’ve got a lot to say, it turns out. How to control this? When and what exactly is to be controlled? By whom? Currently, there are still far too many in control who are non-users of the new social media, those who neither blog, wiki, facebook or twitter. In short: those who actually do not have any expertise in the very field they want to regulate so desparately.
Successful ‘control’, i.e. such that is neither patronising nor does it trigger instant resistance but is adapted by users as enabling and empowering, may rather come from peers than in the traditional top-down manner. After all, bloggers and microbloggers are technically already able to remove messages and exercise self-moderation if required. Instilling a sense of responsible information-sharing while learning to produce quality content is the actual challenge at stake. Yet, with all the shifts in external control and regulation a review of internal mechanisms is to me the more realistic and sustainable approach: self-reflection and self-evaluation of one’s own contribution strengthen the sense of ownership and third party assessment. It is not just citizens who need to learn how to engage and publish with responsibility – it is also governments who need to learn to take their citizens seriously and work in collaboration with them on information-sharing in a globalised world.
I recently came across Mariana Goya Martinez’s and Aimee Hope Morrison’s work. The latter is a researcher in Canada and mommy-blogger, her presentation raised a number of interesting questions. Morrison argued that the diary-style blog, as sub-category of the blogosphere, constitutes a hybrid as it links the private and the public mainly by comments. These two areas are also interdependent as they nurture each other – comments provided on each other’s blogposts help to maintain and build networks and relationships. The theoretical framework was very much rooted in Goffman’s notion of the frontstage and the presentation of the self in the everyday. An everyday I would also define as a hybrid of the public and private, online and offline. The extent to which the bloggers’ narrative self-disclosure was part of an everyday life lived offline, though, was not subject to analysis.
Guilty pleasure as a concept sprang to mind as it was argued that many of those [female] bloggers ‘under investigation’ avoided tagging and categorising by purpose in order to prevent identification. It seemed, underlying the lifecycle of those blogs were also strongly correlated events and stages in offline life which forced the researchers to be either in a similar situation in order to comment and engage with the authors or to remain in an undisclosed role. Participant observation, textual analysis and auto-ethnography constituted the methodological framework.
Researching blogs without revealing one’s own identity, motives and activities might be very tempting and legitimate in ethical terms as the blogs are publicly available. Yet, when it comes to evaluation of findings the lack of participant validation as one strategy to ensure triangulation strikes me. Part of the problem may be the fragility of a blog’s lifecycle which is certainly subject to periodical crisis. Revaluation and redesign seem to be part of a blog’s coming of age with comments as currency generally providing a more or less constant flow of stimulation, positively or negatively. This may even result in its death with the role of flame wars in this context certainly not to be underestimated. Without interviewing bloggers at a more in-depth level, though, the complexity of events, complex decision-making processes and the impact of the unconscious upon all this must remain behind the public presentation and largely obscure – or subject to speculation at the researcher’s end.
This is the nexus where it becomes clear that participant observation and textual analysis are no doubt valuable methods but they may need to be reviewed as bloggers become increasingly aware of being subject to scholarly scrutiny with them being subjectified to observation and their products to textual analysis. The politics of ethnography would benefit greatly from a more sophisticated understanding of an unequal distribution of power in the blogosphere and what strategies bloggers resort to in order to prevent their blog becoming a casualty of the politics of ethnography.
In July I attended the Internet Studies Festival at John Moores University in Liverpool which was a rather small but very valuable event. One issue though seemed to remain in the dark and it is still not as widely debated as it should be: ethics.
A post-grad social researcher argued that ‘one would need to find a way to work around’ – she left us in the dark about the details of her own research, i.e. how exactly she had ensured privacy and data protection in her fieldwork centred around ‘understanding student’s use of Facebook’ were secured at all times. Rather she had perceived the semi-public sphere of facebook with her friends’ contact details a rich source of data – and subsequently presented poorly disguised images and personal details of her participants as part of her findings to the delegates – assuming this would be another semi-private/exclusive space. Hence, a safe arena.
This may come across as a specifically sad case but looking at the currently available formal framework of guidelines as provided by the AoiR [Association of Internet Researchers] AoIR Research Ethics and the BSA Research Ethics the guidelines are perhaps not explicit enough and might remain vague to those students who learned to expect a larger extent or more explicit guidance. Also, the applications online available, the range of settings and practices within and around the online social networks, the micro-/blogosphere etc may change faster than academic institutions/committees are usually able to respond and amend their guidelines. Dynamic and flexibility would need to increase – or students might need to get equipped with the skills and attitude to adopt/develop guidelines themselves according to the demands of the specific environment under investigation.
Another issue in this context might be the persistence of a rather unhelpful debate: the public/private dichotomy. Certainly, the online sphere deserves just as much careful consideration of ethical issues as the offline spheres – otherwise we, i.e. the community of researchers [at all stages], may risk to loose reputation, credibility – and most importantly: the degree of influence we actually seek when we embark upon the research journey.
Censorship in the blogosphere may trigger instant associations to China, Syria etc and policing the internet. But censorship may not only occur on the national or the macro level but also on the micro level. The extent of control exercised when readers comment on postings may say more about the individual/s running the blog than any statements made by them in their profile or postings.
Under the umbrella of an individual’s anxieties, i.e. the need to feel in control in the virtual world where many perceive themselves not in command but rather controlled by the invisible audiences – and other unknown forces – , the only way to restore order and a sense of power is to censor comments to a degree that may disencourage readers to comment at all. This resulting lack of feedback and interaction in a rapidly growing universe of blogs, online social networks, and microblogging tools such as twitter may contribute to a sense that ‘those out there’ are indeed powerful invisible audiences who consume but remain emotionally unavailable. A desired outcome of the regulatory mechanisms at the micro level in the blogosphere?