This #100hardtruths was given to my friend, and fellow-member of FemTechNet, thewriter, performer, activist and professor, T.L. Cowan. It is written based on conversations with and learning from Dorothy Kim, Eunsong Kim, Gabrielle Bellot, Moya Bailey, Jacqueline Wernimont, Jasmine Rault, Alexis O’Hara, Dayna McLeod, Robyn Overstreet, Veronica Paredes, Lisa Nakamura, Alexandra Juhasz, Danielle Cole, Alexandrina Agloro, Joss Greene, micha cárdenas, Izetta Autumn Mobley, and many others.
It may seem very innocuous, but the purloining of ideas for profit is an egregious form of journalistic harm that places no value on the thoughts, feelings, or needs of the original creator of the content. It is at the very least the laziest form or ‘journalism’ possible. In the broader scheme of things, it is a form of intellectual property theft and should be dealt with as such. Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 1
“A lot of justice-oriented academics and journalists are committed to researching, writing and circulating what we see as hard truths, responding to fake news with evidence we gather from a wide range of materials. Often, the work of circulating #100hardtruths has to do with amplifying the experiences, perspectives and ideas of folks whose voices are not typically heard, or are actively suppressed, in and by dominant (white, wealth-driven, settler, US-centric) news media. For example, well-meaning academics and journalists might cite a social media content producer as evidence to show public sentiment and support for a social justice-oriented argument—for example, this is what people are saying on Twitter about state-sanctioned anti-black police violence, or about the proposed anti-Muslim ban, or about the Canadian Prime Minister’s support for another pipeline, destroying more land, air and water, or we might base an entire article or book on how social media content producers are shaping contemporary activism.
The availability of easily accessible social media posts has made it possible for scholars and journalists to find a wide range of perspectives from folks they do not have ready access to in face-to-face existence, thus allowing the researcher to easily incorporate the ideas of others in the formation of their own research argument or news story. Social media platforms make it possible to grab a “quote” from a minoritized social media content producer—who generated the content for free—without ever having a conversation with that person, or sharing the potential profit, be it financial, intellectual or cultural capital. As long as the source is cited, we’re accustomed to calling it a day, and an ethical day at that! We’ve written something that incorporates the ideas and words of folks who are not normally heard in the context of [insert the newspaper, magazine, journal or conference], possibly to tell a hard truth, uncovering the real story behind some fake news, and now we’ve helped make the world a better place. Well done!
Not so fast, comrade. As Jamie Nesbitt Golden and Monique Judge explain in their short essays (see my epigraph above) for the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV), hoisting a tweet or other social media post from a non-famous person and using it to build a scholarly argument or news story is not rigorous or ethical research, it’s idea theft. Sure the tweets of high-profile people might be fair game as public speech. But to use the tweets of folks who are having an online conversation that we’re not part of, even with a correctly-formatted citation? That’s just eavesdropping.
The politics of citation—to cite down rather than up, to cite sources that are not already in massive circulation, to cite predominantly women, people of color, trans folks, Indigenous peoples, folks from the Global South, etc.—is an important form of intellectual activism meant to center the ideas of these folks rather than perpetually re-centering the ideas of mostly white, Euro-American settler dude-experts. But, citation is, as the Northern Lights Canadian all-star charity ballad goes, not enough.1 [Heads up: this video clip opens with scenes of Ethopian people starving, during drought and famine of the early 1980s. It also features a lot of white people in Canada–though not exclusively white Canadians—singing in a sound booth and ends with the very nationalist images of Canadian wheat being flown to Ethiopia. Sorry.]
By approaching all social media content as public texts, just as available for quotation as any newspaper article, published book or policy statement, we fail to recognize that not all social media content producers (i.e. tweeters, bloggers and posters) want their words to extend beyond their immediate social media network or, indeed, that the re-circulation of a tweet or a post beyond its initial context is, in fact, unethical and potentially harmful. In so doing, as Joss Greene explains, we “flatten very different relationships into one generalized public.” Social media content producers face different kinds of risk when their words are taken beyond their original context, depending on who they are, where they live, how they live, and how targeted they may already be in a world structured by, for example, racial and gender hierarchies.
Most social media posts are created in community, in conversation. When a scholarly or journalistic researcher—especially one from outside the community in which the material was originally posted—extracts a tweet or post written by a non-famous (or not professionally public) person without covering the scope of the conversation, without getting permission to quote, without being accountable to the community of origin and context, we conveniently steal someone else’s ideas in pursuit of our own argument, exposing the content producer to risk of harm, without their consent and without sharing the profit or credit of this work.
Rather than thinking that our ethical obligation stops at citation, we can be more rigorous in our research practices towards a framework of accountability, co-authorship, resource distribution and power sharing.
So often the logic of mere citation is that in the food chain of ideas, scholars and journalists who have access to high circulation or high prestige publishing venues, will use their profile and access to increase the exposure—to signal boost, amplify the voices—of artists, activists and other grassroots cultural workers, and the payment these folks receive, as my collaborator Jasmine Rault and I have argued, is the “caché of being studied.” That is, so often scholars and journalists don’t pay the artists and activists whose work and words they study because the labour of being studied (of answering questions, of dealing with the potential blowback) is understood to be in the interest of that artist or activist, i.e., for their own good, for the good of exposure. As the artist Alexis O’Hara says about these logics and practices, “You can die of exposure.”
The politics of mere citation helps to keep the power structure—the ideas food chain— in tact, keeping grassroots social media content producers and other cultural workers putting it out there for free, and journalists and scholars using it without paying for it, to add cred to the articles that they get paid to write.
Let’s hear the chorus now, Northern Lights style: Don’t you know that citation is not enough?!
That is, mere citation does not require the kind of transformation of privilege, values, analysis and access that is needed to shake up the world of “thought leaders,” to use a particularly gross term that nonetheless reflects how ideas circulate as currency in the intellectual and news economies.
Once more: Citation is not enough!
At the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) we have created a set of materials to help journalists, teachers and scholarly researchers to rethink how they use the work of social media content producers. Our materials are meant to shift the discussion from an obsession with proper citational practices (i.e. what does the MLA style guide say about tweets?), to a commitment to ethical community engagement and resource distribution. In particular, we hope that our materials will help scholars, students and journalists to build accountability to their social media “sources” into their research and publishing practices.
As all of the contributors to the CSOV resources have noted in one way or another, one way we can begin to make these kinds of transformations is to start thinking of social media research as community-engaged research, rather than as textual analysis or literature review.
You can check out our open-access materials on shifting digital research ethics by Izetta Autumn Mobley, Dorothy Kim, Joss Greene, Veronica Paredes, micha cárdenas, Alexandrina Agloro, Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, Moya Bailey & T.L. Cowan, and The Alchemists—a collective of Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley and Danielle Cole. These materials are available on the FemTechNet website; they are intended for sharing widely and folks were paid for the labour of making them, although nothing is stopping you for paying them some more if you can!
These materials are created with the idea that if we shift our methodologies, it will help us to shift our ethics, and help us to match our research protocols with the community protocols of our subjects and sites, especially social media subjects and sites.
Here’s a tour through some of the CSOV digital research ethics materials:
Moya Bailey and I wrote a Research Ethics for Social Media in the Classroom guide, in which we explain the ways that often well-meaning teachers might inadvertently expose social media content producers to harm, by turning their posts and profiles into curricula without ever seeking permission or input from the OPs (Original Posters). We offer some tactics that teachers can use to be accountable to the individuals and communities they want to engage with their students. In particular, we think through the risks associated with increased, unwanted exposure and the labour and potential harms associated with that exposure.
The Alchemists—a collective of Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole—developed the Power & Control Wheel and Respect Wheel to “help creators slow down and consider the ways they cite and utilize information both on and off the web.” The Alchemists explain that these resources are “modeled from the popular Power & Control Wheels that have been created for discussing domestic and intimate partner violence, we extend those conversations to the violence we have experienced and survived online.”
The CSOV also produced the “Research Ethics, Social Media & Accountability Video Series,” based on two online workshops co-hosted with the Feminist Technology Network (FemTechNet). Six of the co-facilitators of these workshops further contributed to the project by making videos, responding to the question, Why is it important for teachers, students and journalists to think about Research Ethics when they are using social media as part of their teaching and research? Here are some of the practices proposed:
Joss Greene: “What does it mean for us as researchers to work from a place of solidarity? Social media tends to flatten very different relationships into one generalized public. In the real world we understand that there are different dynamics at play. Just because we have access to information, doesn’t mean that we are the intended audience. It is important to recognize that a power dynamic is in play here and as researchers we have an ethical obligation to negotiate with the person whose words we are interested in using, even it if seems like it would be easier to just take what we have access to…. I would encourage academics to have relationships with the communities that they’re doing research with that go beyond the researcher-subject dynamic, which is always going to be one in which we, as researchers, hold power. Being in solidarity is about taking direction. It is important that we as researchers release our grip on our researcher way and devote our time and energy in equal part towards the goals and projects that other people are defining.”
Alexandrina Agloro: “Data is not detached from real world bodies, real world lives and real world experiences. So, when using social media, think about the increased vulnerability of folks who are online.”
Veronica Paredes: “Like any other mode of communication and expression, social media has its own set of histories, communities, and practices. If a teacher, journalist or researcher imagines social media as an empty space, or only as one composed of autonomous contributions, each 140 characters long, they are missing the conversation. They are missing a lot about how individual tweets are situated, and where they come from.”
Izetta Autumn Mobley: “We are now thinking about social media as divorced from IRL (In Real Life). So sometimes we think that informed consent or thinking about context, is somehow dropping out from concerns about research. I think this is the moment when we need to consider it the most. What is the impact of the exposure? If we are educators asking students to go follow a blog or Twitter feed, what, then, is the result of that? What does that do for the exposure of the person is who now being highlighted? Did they expect for this to happen? And, probably most importantly, what labor are they now being asked to do that they previously weren’t being asked to stand up and do?”
micha cárdenas: “Just as with offline socially-engaged scholarship, try to make your work mutually beneficial to the individuals and communities you are engaging with, and to you and your students. Think carefully about how your use of social media may cause harm to people for your own benefit.”
Dorothy Kim: “Try not to do harm…. Research all the platforms and understand what those ecosystems are and what the rules of engagement might be before you do something on social media in relation to your work. … Think about the possible harm that may come from your engagement, slow down, and plan out what you want to do, and what these interactions might look like and what might be the consequences.”
As journalists and scholarly researchers in pursuit of hard truths, let’s also examine and adjust our research practices so that we aren’t just reproducing the logics of exploitation and exposure for the purposes of our own careers and reputations.
- Jamie Nesbit Golden & Monique Judge “Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 1.”
- Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, “Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 2.”
- Moya Bailey & T.L. Cowan, “Research Ethics for Students & Teachers: Social Media in the Classroom.”
- The Alchemists (Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole): “Power and Respect Handout”
- Caroluyn Sinders: “Designing Consent into Social Networks”
- Eira Tansey: “Large-Scale Archiving And The Right To Be Forgotten.”
- Brian X. Chen & Natasha Singer: “What else are you sharing? Here, have a cookie.”
- @tgirlinterruptd, @chiefelk, @bad_dominicana, @aurabogado, @so_treu, @blackamazon and @thetrudz “This Tweet Called My Back”. Originally posted tothistweetcalledmyback.tumblr.com
- Lisa Nakamura: “The Unwanted Labour Of Social Media: Women Of Colour Call Out Culture As Venture Community Management.” New Formations: a journal of culture, theory, politics, 106-112, 2015.
1 By the way, the song I’m quoting here, Northern Lights’ “Tears are Not Enough,” is itself not unproblematic, but it is the refrain I hear every time I write about digital research ethics. The song was a fundraiser to help folks in Ethiopia during the famine and drought of the early 1980s. However, while the song is reminding folks in Canada that tears are not enough, which is true enough, it does not engage in the structural analysis required to be accountable for Western imperialism in Africa, forced industrialization and resource extraction, in addition to the normalized devaluation of Black lives, and global maldistribution of wealth and life chances that produces and reproduces the glut/starvation divide. Relief efforts, like the one Northern Lights is promoting, are kind of like mere citation: they show a little bit of care, but require no real engagement, and keep the food chain in tact.
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- The CSOV a modified version of the logo for the #tooFEW Wikipedia Edit-a-thon many of us were involved in 2013. When used for #TooFEW, it was part of making the argument that issues of race, gender, and sexuality weren’t adequately represented in Wikipedi
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- Created by The Alchemists: Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole for the Center for Solutions to Online Violence.