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Encrypted chat apps allow for a certain degree of perceived secrecy. Yet the high frequency of civic engagement makes ethnographic research a time-consuming exercise. This article investigates how digital ethnography inside WhatsApp groups requires up-to-date, innovative ethical guidelines. We suggest a two-pronged approach. On the other hand, while thinking through innovative ways of considering ethics in chat app research, we ought to take infrastructure seriously, both the site of research and the research ecosystem; embrace transparency and avoid by all means covert bypasses; and guarantee full anonymisation to our research subjects.

Keywords: engaged research, research ethics, digital ethnography, digital activism, Telegram, al, WhatsApp, chat apps. How to Cite: Barbosa S. Among other things, the group discussed the behind-the-scenes meetings of their members with national politicians and leaders, now accessible to public purview in a total of over s of transcripts dealing with health, public policy, and education, among others Abbud, More and more scholars are devoting their attention to political activism facilitated by real-time chat applications like Whatsapp and Telegram see, among others, Barbosa, ; Alimardani and Milan, ; Potnis, Demissie, Trimmer and Cleek, ; Agur and Frisch, We can safely argue that messaging apps are today one of the primary sites for media activism to emerge and unfold see, e.

Pickard and Yang, However, and despite the fact they represent a real goldmine for scholars, messaging apps have long remained under the radar of scholars of social movements and digital activism, largely because of the limited permeability of chat groups to overt and covert observation alike.

Nonetheless, the popularity of chat apps for political debate and the coordination of collective action makes them a fruitful venue for research — and more and more scholars are taking advantage of this amazing opportunity. But, as the opening example shows, things might be more complicated than they appear at first sight. The recent introduction of end-to-end encryption to chat apps, then, risks giving activists a false sense of security that encourages individuals and groups to use these channels also for sensitive exchanges, thereby exposing participants to potential risks that researchers might indirectly contribute to amplifying.

This mobilisation, which emerged in Brazil in the aftermath of the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff , was facilitated by a private group on WhatsApp. As we will explain, Barbosa embarked on a digital ethnography of group interaction.

Milan, a long-term student of the relation between movements and technology , was intrigued by this new genre of media activism, which expands the repertoire of digital activism and encapsulates the political potential of chats apps as a civic engagement tool.

In particular, she wondered about the potential ethical ramifications of doing research on chat apps, and private groups in general — and the two researchers started to exchange ideas. What follows is the result of this ongoing exchange and intends to stimulate a much-needed collective reflection on the subject matter. How can we safeguard the ethics of research, protecting user privacy and respecting the intimacy of their exchanges, while simultaneously taking advantage of such a rich data source?

Deceiving participants is thus a concrete risk and a tempting possibility. It is a slippery slope that researchers can no longer ignore. Considering chat apps as simultaneously a social phenomenon and a tool with specific affordances for political participation as well as for research, we reflect on the ethics of qualitative data collection when the field site is an encrypted chat app such as WhatsApp, Telegram and al.

In particular, we focus on the possibilities of digital ethnography in private groups and offer a viable approach to thinking through the ethics of doing research in this digital space. The article builds on and brings into dialogue findings from two research projects.

The paper is composed of four parts. Firstly, we present what is at stake for researchers in encrypted chat apps, focusing on the diffusion of WhatsApp and its siblings worldwide and their role in digital and media activism today, and showing, data in hand, why this represents a great research opportunity. Secondly, we explore the case study that triggered the conversation and inspired our t interrogation into the ethics of research on chat apps. Thirdly, we reflect on digital ethnography as an adaptive method to study interactions in chat apps, reflecting in particular on the risks that come with it.

We then offer our considerations for thinking and practising ethics in chat app research, building also on existing literature on research with politically active subjects. Why should we care about Whatsapp and other similar platforms in the study of media activism? It became a global phenomenon in ; Facebook bought it for USD 19 billion in Over the years, its functionalities were updated several times. By the end of , WhatsApp counted 1. It is the preferred app in more than countries around the world Constine, , with high penetration rates in countries as diverse as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa Sevitt, Whatsapp is pursued by Facebook Messenger with 1.

In recent years, several of these services have adopted end-to-end encryption, in response to public concerns about state snooping as uncovered by the Snowden revelations for an overview, see Greenwald, Technically, it means that messages remain private. Users can send messages to groups with up to people.

Chat app created by the Russian Durov brothers owners of the popular social network VK. Given its functionalities, it is the main direct competitor to WhatsApp on a global scale. Implements end-to-end encryption. It is popular amongst politically active citizens, and in countries like, e. Telegram has a limit of 1. Open-source project, it is the favourite amongst digital rights activists. It, too, supports one-to-one voice and video calls.

Since its inception, it runs end-to-end encryption and supports mechanisms by which users can independently verify the integrity of communications channels and of the identity of their interlocutors. Chat apps play a key role in contemporary activism, including media activism see, e. Lee and Chan, ; Caetano et al. Despite it being frequently considered a flywheel of fake news, especially in countries of the so-called Global South Burgos, ; cf.

Marda and Milan, , WhatsApp has established itself as a powerful political tool for spreading political information Montag et al. Despite these potentially contradictory manifestations, it is increasingly popular among ordinary users in Brazil Spyer, as well as politically-active individuals.

Little research however has focused on Whatsapp as such. Brazil is one of the forerunners as far as WhatsApp penetration is concerned, with million active users Digital Information World, With such a prominent role in a country that is rightly considered one of the cradles of media activism in Latin America, Barbosa set out to observe how the app enabled activism during a difficult moment in the recent history of the country: the controversial impeachment of its president.

Participants advocated the return of Rousseff to the Presidency of the Republic. The confrontation between diverse identities in the group allowed civic engagement to flourish in this space. Most users were also active protesting in the streets, but within WhatsApp they created a new style of political participation able to connect the square and the digital sphere.

The diverse opinions among users grew alongside with interaction on the chat, resulting in a novel, shared collective voice — as observed in earlier forms of media activism Hackett and Carroll, ; Meikle, ; S. Milan, , How did UCG come about? To begin with, the hosting institution did not require an ethical clearance — as it is often the case in countries outside of the Anglo-Saxon context. Available ethical guides and indications e. Milan, did not yet provide ready-to-use insights on the specific app, as obviously they do not have the capacity to keep up with the pace of all tech innovations and user adoption.

In the lack of codified codes of conducts, Barbosa embarked in a process of moral decision-making. The first challenge was of methodological nature: how to develop a creative approach to digital ethnography that did not harm or interfere with the interactions among chat members?

Thanks to his active participation in group discussions he began building trust, which, like admittance, was facilitated by prior acquaintance with some of the UCG group members. It is worth noting, however, that he was well aware that with chat apps, consensus cannot be assumed as a once-off ocurrence, as one cannot guarantee that every user including future members!

He did take care to send occasional reminders about his research, paying attention not to disrupt the conversation. Interestingly, amongst the informal commitments he made to the group members upon ing and disclosing his identity of researcher, was the promise to be able with respect to public presentations of the research . He could observe identity formation at the group level the meso level of mobilisation , and, with the help of semi-structured interviews, explore the micro level of meaning-making, too.

Broadcasting indignation and solidarity, the bottom-up character of UCG political action inaugurated a unique way for individuals to share stories, interacting with each other, and connecting locally in this novel online-offline civic engagement space. He could identify the dynamics of discussion and coordination, while making a point about the validity of investigating private chats, instead of merely focusing on public groups Garimella and Tyson, ; Resende et al.

Users with similar political views came together but also recognised the right of other WhatsAppers with distinct opinions to present their views on the political situation. The group thus hosted also dissent and discussion, but within a basis of mutual respect. It also showed dynamics of this nature can facilitate the emergence of a collective identity based on lower-common-denominators yet nonetheless useful to the cause S.

Milan, Berry and Fagerjord remind us that each digital interface calls for appropriate research methods. Digital or virtual, cf. Kozinets identified three types of virtual ethnography, conducted respectively on archived data, extracted data and field note data. If we adapt this classification to data extracted from chat groups in messaging apps, we have the following typology.

The first type consists of copying directly from computer-mediated communications data from the or observed group, importing text, photographs, and sound files — in other words, data for which the researchers are not involved in the creation. This one is very hard to do within chat apps, at least not in their entirety. The second approach refers to data that the researcher creates through interaction with group members, such as data collected through interviews by e-mail, chat, instant messages, etc.

From the methodological point of view, the real-time-ness of interactions in this space means that extracted data comes in large amounts. Field note data then become of paramount importance in the transformation of raw data, such as chat files extracted from the group scroll bar, chat backup, screenshots, and interview transcripts. Table 2 summarises the three types as they apply to chat apps.

Three types of virtual ethnography adapted to chat groups. What makes digital ethnography on chat apps simultaneously so special and challenging? Digital ethnography is particularly suitable for the study of contemporary forms of digital activism, and media activism in particular, as it unfolds on chat apps, for at least three reasons. On the one hand, WhatsApp groups can be the origin of both political actions in the online space chat , but also on the ground — such as demonstrations or petitions.

Yet such a research site and these methods are particularly prone to deception and misconduct. In this section we depart from the experience with UCG, to review existing reflections and provisions on research ethics and apply them to the field site of chat apps. Our building blocks include documents prepared by professional organisations e. Flacks, ; Pimienta, ; Chesters, ; Ess, ; S.

Milan, ; Floridi and Taddeo, ; C. We also take into the evolving legislative backdrop e. Ward, Generally speaking, researchers of all disciplines can prefer to avoid going through an ethics committee procedure, as these processes are tedious and complex, and often have the unwanted result of slowing down the research. To name just one, the field of social movement studies — one of the key disciplines devoted to the study of activism — has only seldom engaged openly with questions of ethics.

This leaves a lot of colleagues thirsty for example and best practices. Ryan and Jeffreys, , and ability towards research subjects, which includes also knowledge sharing. Milan and Milan later expanded the list into the STRAP framework, acronym for Sharing, Translation, Relevance, ability, and Power, deed to encourage researchers to engage communities on the ground as active agents of knowledge production C.

Milan and Milan, The UCG case shows that persistent relation-building is fundamental to foster healthy research relationships. These simple rules can help researchers to re- centre the research subjects and their environment and agendas, placing their well-being before academic goals of any kind and before any reflection on affordances of the technology. Nor are the current mechanisms, whereby ethics takes the form of lengthy, over-detailed, tedious checklists, which are shelved away and usually forgotten the minute after a project receives the green light from the ethics board.

In this respect, it is useful to take a look at the Data Ethics Decision Aid DEDA prepared by the Utrecht Data School at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, originally developed for public administrations and deed to foster a deliberative discussion within a team. It is intended to be used recursively during the course of a given project. It includes questions about methods, data management, laws and codes of conducts but also visualisation and the responsibility towards the research community and society more in general.

Although it does not concern chat apps, DEDA offers an excellent way to engage with ethics in a recursive manner. As the UCG case made apparent, it is hard in chat apps to capture and get the attention of all members in a chat group for the entire duration of the project. The codified way of obtaining informed consent does not work either, with research subjects expected to a consent form as the sine-qua-non condition for participating in the research. This approach is entirely outdated in the age of chat apps, and potentially dangerous. On the one hand, collecting consent forms from the over participants in a private group on Whatsapp is plainly unfeasible.

More in general, what does consent mean in the age of chat apps? The research subject, rather than the ethics board, should be put at the centre of the process. As the kind of research described here takes place in an ecosystem in continuous evolution, both as far as the technological and legal set up and user preferences and awareness are concerned, investigators must be aware of the main functionalities and affordances of their research site. They must keep abreast of their evolution, as these may be modified by the service provider in the course of the research and take care of informing their research subjects of the conditions under which the research takes place.

But infrastructure matters also when it comes to data storage, analysis and sharing. Today universities no longer run their own servers and services, preferring to rely on commercial alternatives such as Microsoft and Google, whose facilities typically come with non-negotiable and blurry terms of service.

A researcher should prefer, whenever possible, self-run infrastructure able to protect user data. On the one hand, researchers have been trained to disclose their questions and hypotheses only partially if at all , to avoid, e. Zelenkauskaite and Bucy, Pseudo-anonymisation — or the de-identification procedure by which personally identifiable information fields are replaced by, e. However, especially when dealing with vulnerable subjects such as politically active individuals, this measure is not always sufficient to protect the identity of users on, e.

We argue that users must be safeguarded by implementing full anonymisation, e. Encryption, however, is not future-proof, as quantum computing might eventually make accessible what is today hidden. New technological affordances, new practices of civic engagement, and new forms of surveillance and risks require novel approaches to research ethics.

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