There are several ethical and methodological challenges when we seek to include the online sphere in our research. In some cases, it might be best to go offline to be able to conduct better online research.
With the rise of internet technology there has been growing interest among migration scholars in how various aspects of migration-related subjects can be studied by incorporating the digital sphere. This is also relevant under the current pandemic circumstances when many have had to adapt their earlier offline research plans to online digital data collection. However, relatively little attention has been given to the ethical and methodological dilemmas that accompany digital data use (Sandberg, Rossi, Galis, & Bak Jørgensen, 2022). Going online to conduct social research arguably institutes new methodological challenges due to difficulties connecting to the field and situating context (Marres, 2017).
In my doctoral project, I have conducted digital observations of European citizens who use the internet to provide support to rejected asylum seekers from Afghanistan. This fieldwork entailed digital observations of sensitive data due to the potentially illegal acts of facilitating irregular migration in Europe (Carrera, Mitsilegas, Allsopp, & Vosyliute, 2019; Rabe & Haddeland, 2021). Thus, when starting this research project, I had to carefully consider the ethical challenges of conducting such observations.
Annette Markham (2005) has argued that online observations can involve severe ethical pitfalls. Specifically, the issue of consent, confidentiality, transferring data, and data storage are essential to address, Markham points out. Because the literature is scarce on how digital ethnographic research can practically overcome such ethical and methodological challenges, I had to develop solutions that would enable my research on my own.
The first issue I had to address was informed consent. In digital research, consent is considered a highly challenging task. European guidelines for ethnographic research have noted that consent is an ongoing process, and that consent is in some cases impossible or inadvisable (European Association of Social Anthropologists, 2018). According to Caliandro (2018) studying online networks does not require direct contact with those observed.
Nevertheless, due to ethical research guidelines in Norway, where I am employed, my research needed to include informed consent. To obtain consent, I decided to connect directly with informants and ask for an interview where I explained the nature of the digital observations. Most of the informants I reached out to gave consent to the digital observations. Another issue commonly faced in online research is the proliferation of online misinformation and 'cloaked profiles' that have created epistemological challenges of conducting research when profiles may be cloaked, meaning that they have a feigned or unknown identity (Daniels, 2009, 2013). Thus, reaching out and obtaining informed consent ‘offline’ will allow the researcher to know that the observed profiles are not cloaked. It should be noted that reaching out and asking for consent from informants will alter the unobtrusive nature of the study. Therefore, I included reflections that my presence as a researcher affected the study differently than unobtrusive observations without consent.
Collection and Storage of Online Data
The second challenge I faced was the issue of storing and collecting digital data. Here, privacy regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) set out by the EU in 2018 is relevant to online observations because commercial social networking platforms have adopted these regulations as their global baseline for privacy (Shapiro, 2021). Considering the GDPR, processing personal data is considered acceptable if the ethnographic research has been recognised as in the public interest (European Association of Social Anthropologists, 2018). Nonetheless, because I was collecting highly sensitive data, I could not merely download and store verbatim transcripts, screenshots, pictures, and other types of data. Thus, I opted to go back to traditional “offline” ethnographic techniques and take field notes of my observations. These field notes included descriptions and reflections and only included pseudonyms of the observed informants.
Including digital spheres in migration research can, in many cases, be necessary because technological advancements and the internet have become embedded and embodied in our everyday lives (Hine, 2015). Thus, migration scholars engaged with digital ethnography may find themselves in similar situations as I did due to the nature of the data that we aim to collect. Considering the lack of literature within digital ethnography on how the ethical issues that follow digital observations can be approached practically by each researcher, turning to some aspects of offline methods that are doable within the scope of the project may enable migration scholars to capture better and more valuable data in the online sphere.
Caliandro, A. (2018). Digital methods for ethnography: Analytical concepts for ethnographers exploring social media environments. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 47(5), 551-578.
Carrera, S., Mitsilegas, V., Allsopp, J., & Vosyliute, L. (2019). Policing humanitarianism: EU policies against human smuggling and their impact on civil society: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Daniels, J. (2009). Cloaked websites: propaganda, cyber-racism and epistemology in the digital era. New Media & Society, 11(5), 659-683.
Daniels, J. (2013). Race and racism in Internet studies: A review and critique. New Media & Society, 15(5), 695-719.
European Association of Social Anthropologists. (2018). EASA’s Statement on Data Governance in Ethnographic Projects. Retrieved from https://easaonline.org/downloads/support/EASA%20statement%20on%20data%20governance.pdf
Hine, C. (2015). Ethnography for the internet: Embedded, embodied and everyday: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Markham, A. N. (2005). The methods, politics, and ethics of representation in online ethnography. Paper presented at the The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, SAGE, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Marres, N. (2017). Digital sociology: The reinvention of social research: John Wiley & Sons.
Rabe, T., & Haddeland, H. B. (2021). Diverging interpretations of humanitarian exceptions: assisting rejected asylum seekers in Norway. Journal of ethnic and migration studies, 1-18.
Sandberg, M., Rossi, L., Galis, V., & Bak Jørgensen, M. (2022). Research Methodologies and Ethical Challenges in Digital Migration Studies: Caring For (Big) Data? : Springer Nature.
Shapiro, E. H., Sugarman, Michael, Bermejo, Fernando, Zuckerman, Ethan. (2021, February 2021). New Approaches to Platform Data Research. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bPsMbaBXAROUYVesaN3dCtfaZpXZgI0x/view
Thea Næs Rabe is a PhD student in sociology at Nord University, in Levanger, Norway. Her PhD project investigates assistance from European citizens to young migrants from Afghanistan who have had their asylum claim rejected. It looks at the secondary migration of rejected asylum seekers within the Schengen area and how European citizens contend EU migration policies in the context of pro-migrant movements and new forms of humanitarianism. Rabe has a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Amsterdam. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oslo and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Volda University College. Before starting her PhD, she worked as a senior advisor for the Norwegian Red Cross.