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Case study: the ethics of researching the far right

PREVENT Duty and ethical research case study

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Researching the mainstreaming of far-right activities online

Antonia Vaughan describes the ethical challenges she faces in her research about the activities of the far right.

About my study

In this ongoing project, I am using covert methodologies to research the online mainstreaming of the far-right. The aim is to understand how users work across different online platforms to construct and disperse shared narratives, particularly between influencers and their audience. To do this, I am analysing publicly accessible user data that is produced by participants on Reddit and YouTube.

Careful consideration was given to deciding which platforms to use, as publicly accessible online data is not necessarily legally or ethically permissible by virtue of ease of access. This project also focuses on the ethics of researching the far-right, including risk perception and risk management by the researcher.

Ethical issues to consider

  • Informed consent/covert research
  • Anonymity
  • Using information from social media
  • Working with security sensitive data (collection, analysis, publication)
  • PREVENT Duty related issues
  • Risks to the safety of the researcher

Mitigating Actions

  • Obtaining ethical opinion and approval
  • Registering with PREVENT
  • Creation and maintenance of a Data Management Plan
  • Risk assessing to ensure safety of the researcher
  • Collaboration with the IT security department to create a safe environment for covert research with potentially extremist material
  • Paraphrasing of user data
  • Support from public relations, social media, and physical security teams to pre-empt risks where possible

Lessons learnt

When carrying out covert research with online data, the terms of service and design of the platform are critical for informed consent. The EU has stated that terms of service are not equivalent to informed consent, and some terms of service prevent data collection entirely, unless it is displayed in a specific way. Research has indicated that users do not consider publicly accessible data as publicly available and that they are aware of its use by academics.

It is really important to paraphrase online comments made by participants to ensure anonymity. This is necessary, unless the participant you are researching is deliberately trying to be public with their comments (as would be the case for YouTubers). Search engines mean that quotations can be searched, and users potentially identified. The impact of identification is substantial for users expressing extremist viewpoints.

Despite collecting data from solely mainstream platforms, all data had to be treated as potentially extremist because of the nature of the users and viewpoints. Appropriate protocols for data collection and analysis were set up with the support of IT Security and the department.

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This case study, edited by Helen Friend, is part of a collection outlining the experiences of researchers from the University of Bath in relation to research ethics. The researchers describe the ethical issues that arose during their research projects, the mitigating actions they took and the lessons that they learnt. More case studies can be found here. We gratefully acknowledge support from Research England through the Enhancing Research Culture Fund (ERCP).