This research project, led by Dr Ella McPherson, aims to determine the nature, opportunities and risks of human rights NGOs’ social media networks and to assess the implications of social media use for accountability generation by the NGOs in question as well as the mainstream media; and inform human rights NGOs’ social media strategies for communicating human rights information, which in turn will support public awareness and policymaking in the pursuit of governmental accountability.
Besides generating knowledge of crucial benefit to the researched NGOs’ communication strategies, this research pushes the boundaries of academic knowledge in several directions.
Very little is understood about civil society’s role in accountability journalism. The implications of social media for accountability are developing rapidly and are of crucial importance, given social media’s role in ongoing political change, but we do not know much about the value of social media networks and how participants can invest in them. Most human rights research is of the legal variety, yet human rights matter most when they come off the page and into people’s lives.
The practices around the protection and discourse of human rights are comparatively understudied; this research intends to redress that balance.
This project will develop new methods of engaging with digital data – an exciting new way to understand society, and one in which the research methodology must keep pace with technological developments.
Ethics statement submitted as part of the Je-S proposal
I have carefully considered the ethics of conducting a digital ethnography and social network analysis of social media use at human rights NGOs and include here my assessment of ethical issues raised and how to approach them. The online aspect of this research, as well as the fact that I will be dealing with the sensitive information of human rights violations means that I will submit my project for a full ethical review by the University of Cambridge’s Humanities and Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee. I will follow the ethical guidelines of the ESRC Ethics Framework, as well as those of the British Sociological Association and the Association of Internet Researchers. Throughout the project, I will be critically reflexive about unanticipated ethical issues arising from its sensitive, qualitative and digital nature.
Much of the data collected will involve recorded interviews with and observations of human rights professionals, who will not be paid for their participation. Before beginning data collection, I will provide informants with a participation document, which I will guide them through in order to gain their written informed consent. This document will supply my contact details; will outline the aims of my research, including my obligation to do no harm; and will specify my intended outputs, my intention to share data, and their rights to anonymity, confidentiality, and to withdraw from the project at any time. For interviews with participants who are outside of my case study NGOs but that have a relationship with them, such as key information targets in their social networks, I will in all instances approach potential participants only with the NGO in question’s approval and introduction. In terms of data retention, I will fully anonymise all data on an individual level as well as on an institutional level where requested. Only I will have access to the personal information corresponding to collected data, which will be securely stored and password protected, and my contract with the transcription agency will include a confidentiality agreement.
As they work in the controversial arena of human rights, my informants at NGOs will be well aware of the political and social risks as well as the risks to individuals of sharing sensitive information. In all cases, I will follow the human rights organisations’ leads with respect to this information; I will include details of particular cases only if the human rights organisations have publicised them or if the details are already in the public domain via the mainstream and/or social media. With respect to information I may encounter on violations stemming from sources outside the human rights organisation and that does not enter the public domain, I will proceed under the assumption that these sources did not intend for the information to become public. In those instances, I will refer to cases only in typologies and only as needed to explain the behaviour of my informants, and I will develop these typologies in concert with my human rights informants to ensure that I suppress or sufficiently disguise any details that might pose a risk. In all instances of potentially risky information, I will err on the side of caution.
The rapid evolution of digital communications technology is outpacing digital ethnographic methods, which in turn are developing more quickly than associated ethical recommendations. Online research creates new ethical complexities, such as the increased layers of anonymity required by usernames, which are also identities, and the continuous need to maintain informed consent in social media networks since the researcher can so easily and inadvertently become invisible online (Murthy 2011). One of my outputs will aim to advance the guidelines and strategies for conducting ethical online research.