For over three years now, I’ve been getting increasingly involved with research projects that involve the online far right in one way or another. One of the most interesting ways that I’ve developed as a researcher during this time is having to think through in greater detail my commitments to research ethics. Because my research typically focuses on public social media data, I am rarely required to obtain informed consent from those whom I study. Of course, I agree with many internet researchers that this does not absolve me of my ethical responsibilities (I find Fiesler and Proferes’s 2018 paper on this subject particularly helpful). This becomes even trickier, though, when the unwitting “participants” in my research espouse views that I find objectionable. To what extent do I, as a researcher, owe a Twitter (or Gab) user privacy and dignity if they are engaged in homophobic, misogynist, or white nationalist behavior? I’m still figuring this out, but my approach right now—informed heavily by this paper—is to try to err on the side of respect for the user whenever possible.
This has meant adopting some very specific techniques when writing up my research. Let me take an example from a paper that Amy Chapman and I currently have in press at the Journal of the Mormon Social Science Association. We’re looking at far right and anti-feminist influences in the #DezNat hashtag on Mormon Twitter—it’s not the worst group of people I’ve run across in a research project (hooray for Gab?), but there’s still some objectionable behavior and people present in our data. Despite our personal and professional frustration with participants in this hashtag, Amy and I made the decision early on in the writing process that we would do our best to make it so that individual accounts couldn’t be identified from the data that we included in the paper. This has meant avoiding direct quotes where possible, generally avoiding the inclusion of screenshots, and modifying the text of tweets when we did need to quote something. In short, Twitter has a pretty good search feature, and even if we don’t identify accounts by name, it’s often possible to find the author of a quote by using Twitter search. If we avoid or at least “scramble” quotations, that makes it a lot harder for someone to identify an offending account by their offensive language. This takes a fair amount of work, so in cases where DezNat participants have deleted their accounts or been suspended since we collected our data (in the form of screenshots), it always came as a bit of a relief. Tweets from deleted and suspended accounts can’t be found through Twitter search, so no need to disguise the data, and we didn’t have to put in quite as much work.
Last night, I was thinking about all of this process when it suddenly occurred to me that Elon Musk’s recent “general amnesty” for suspended accounts on Twitter might screw this all up for us. In writing our manuscript, we were working on the assumption that suspended accounts would stay suspended and that we didn’t need to make the extra efforts to protect those accounts from identification. I guess we weren’t counting on the possibility that Musk would welcome back the vast majority of suspended accounts, including those whose tweets we had been quoting without making any effort to disguise their sources. Unless we reach out to the journal and intervene before publication, it’s possible that despite our best efforts to the contrary, readers of our article will be able to trace back some quoted tweets to the original accounts. To be honest, though, I’m not inclined to send a panicked email to JMSSA. We haven’t yet seen the proofs for our article, so making the changes is probably still a possibility, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that we’ll decide to do so. However, we haven’t indicated which quotes are reproduced verbatim, we’ve made a good faith effort to protect these users’ dignity and privacy, and it’s not out of the question that the accounts that were suspended are those that are least deserving of our efforts to protect them. A friend in grad school explained Twitter research ethics to me with the analogy of a bike lock: Nothing can stop someone who’s truly dedicated from identifying the accounts that quotes come from, so our goal is just to dissuade as much as possible. I feel like we’ve done our best here.
At the same time, though, I’m frustrated. As niche of a ripple effect as this is, it’s one more thing that Musk couldn’t be bothered to think about before making rash decisions about Twitter. As a Twitter researcher, I count on the platform working in certain ways, and it’s frustrating to have that changed on me.
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