I’m not going to link to it, but I am fascinated by a recent post on the Gab blog where Andrew Torba announced some new features to help Gab users push back against research on the platform. Not only do I have two or three ongoing projects using Gab data (one is in the very, very early stages and—ironically—uses Gab blog posts), but some of what Torba wrote also aligned with some of the (fortunately mild) trolling my co-author, Amy Chapman, and I have experienced because of my work on the far-right-influenced DezNat hashtag in Mormon Twitter. So, I thought I’d write up some of what stood out to me in the post.
discrediting researchers as dumb
Torba uses several phrases meant to depict researchers (or at least some researchers) as too dumb to get it and unhealthily obsessed with what is happening on Gab. He uses scarequotes around the word “studies” and describes their authors as “dopey academic types who are obsessed with studying the things people are talking about on Gab” or even as “reeesearchers.” This comes off as a kind of ad hominem attack questioning the very existence of social science research (or at least the kind that examines Gab).
It reminded me in particular of some tweets directed at Amy and when we were quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune related to our work on DezNat:
If you are an “academic and your “research” is recording and analysing the jokes my friends and I make on the internet then LMAO @ your life.
I am speaking of [co-author] and [me] who are both pathetic lmfao go get real jobs!
To be clear, we’re studying DezNat not because we’re interested in a friend group’s jokes but because there is a clear and persistent pattern of alt-right and misogynist references in there. However, like Torba, this user tries to argue that we don’t get it: we’re unhealthily obsessed with something mundane and need to get a life.
attacking and questioning validity
For all of my distaste for Torba, I have to admit that the new Gab features he’s announced are actually pretty interesting. He’s rolled out self-destructing posts to everyone and allowed users to mass delete all of their posts or the posts that come up when a particular filter is applied. Given that Gab is a Mastodon fork, I wonder how much of these features are based on similar features built into Mastodon, but let’s be honest: these are tools that every platform should offer. For Torba, though, it’s less about what users deserve and more about inviting his users to “call the validity of the[ir] data… into question.” Rather than attack researchers, this is a slightly different strategy: It acknowledges scholars’ commitment to methodological validity (though I wonder if the word choice is coincidental) and seeks to undermine that.
Last year, after successful doxxing efforts—which, for the record, I’m generally uncomfortable with—some prominent DezNat accounts began regularly deleting their posts and some even disappeared from Twitter. However, what I have in mind as a parallel example is actually some of the methodological critiques that we got from DezNat partisans after a public conference presentation we did on our initial findings in the summer of 2020. One questioned our sample size (1,400 tweets is actually a huge amount for qualitative research, thank you—it took months to get through them) and another questioned our credentials because he’d never heard of “educational psychology” as a discipline (it’s a well-established one, and it’s not even the home discipline for either of us). In short, none of the methodological critiques held up, but it was interesting to see this alternate line of attack where rather than discredit academia, our critics tried to use it against us.
research ethics and the far-right
Perhaps the most interesting part of Torba’s post, though, was his argument that Gab “is not their science experiment and we do everything we can to stop them from conducting any research.” This… isn’t that different from the scholar.social Terms of Service that explicitly warn researchers that they shouldn’t conduct mass scraping of this Mastodon instance in the way that many researchers (myself included) have scraped social media data without obtaining platform or user consent. Over the past few years, Casey Fiesler and Nick Proferes’s paper on “Participant” Perceptions of Twitter Research Ethics has been on my mind; similarly, Suomela and colleagues’ question “how is our scholarly work not a form of surveillance?” has been a haunting one. During my career, I’ve collected a lot of social media data without obtaining consent, and while I’m very attentive to research ethics in doing so, I still wonder whether I’ve gone far enough.
So, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the methods that I’ve built my academic career on, but what complicates this is that I’m increasingly focusing my research on a different kind of population. That is, if I were still mostly collecting data from teacher Twitter, there’s a strong argument that concerns related to digital labor and surveillance should stop me in my tracks. However, I think that the work I’m doing studying far right groups on the internet is important for society and democracy in a way that even the most interesting of my teacher Twitter work isn’t. I believe that even the worst of the far right have rights, so research ethics clearly shouldn’t go out the window; at the same time, though, I’m not going to stop collecting data on the far right. In fact, Torba’s attempt to sow chaos is making me wonder if I need to step up my efforts to collect data that’s interesting to me…
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