Online Safety and Security Considerations

Why read this information?

The affordances of social media to announce a new publication provides a channel through which to reach colleagues and researchers and extend research networks and influence. However, social media also enable certain groups and individuals—often those on the far-right—to conduct coordinated campaigns of harassment that target researchers whose work may engage sensitive topics or rely on critically-oriented traditions of theory, ideas, and commentary. It is crucially important for the health and safety of researchers that their institutions understand the risks and be prepared to take appropriate actions to respond to hate and harassment quickly and effectively.

What constitutes online harassment and why does it happen?

In 2016, Marwick, Blackwell, and Lo put together ‘Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research …’ published as a Data & Society Guide, noting that “[r]esearchers conducting research into sensitive topics may face online harassment, social shaming, or other networked forms of abuse.” As Christina Frangou (2019) has reported, online harassment is occurring in Canada and includes “private messages sent via email, texts and social media, or public campaigns on online platforms [where] sources can be anonymous or known, a single person or an organized campaign.” Forms of online harassment use networked technologies to “threaten, maliciously embarrass, or attack another individual” (Data & Society, 2016) and can include behaviors that are mildly irritating to life-threatening.

Wide-ranging negative harms can flow from research activities, publications, and public engagement that address topics free speech absolutists, far-rights, and white supremacists see as threatening. These topics include analysis and discussion of race and racism, sexuality, gender, equality rights, sexual harassment, anti-racism and decoloniality, 2SLGBTQ+ issues, ableism, science, and climate change, all of which attract networked forms of abuse. Explicit research programs that track and collect data on hate groups, hate propaganda and illiberal speech within the right-wing media ecosystem, and where such research exposes hate campaigns that are blatantly and violently racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homo- and transphobic, anti-Islamic, and so on, are also at risk of coordinated harassment by far-rights. BIPOC colleagues, as well as pre-tenure faculty, women, 2SLGBTQ+ colleagues and students, and any graduate or undergrad conducting sensitive research all face heightened risk for harassment on social media, and publishing and public speaking also amplify those risks. As Conway points out, any “researcher that is publicly identifiable as falling into one or more of these categories is likely to prove a more attractive and persistent target for extreme right online harassment [and] a tactic of online harassers is to communicate false or private information about their targets, which could negatively impact researchers' reputations and/or careers” (2021, p. 370). These risks extend to those in close proximity to researchers, and harassment can escalate online and target colleagues, departments, institutions, friends, and family (Rambukkana, 2019).

Harassers use a variety of tactics such as adopting fake identities as members of oppressed groups or offended university supporters and often attempt to penetrate shared digital workspaces, documents, and Cloud services. A harassment campaign may involve spamming an institution with messages, false complaints, and threats to discredit targeted faculty. Bot accounts, coordinated group actions, and algorithmic manipulation may be used to amplify the harassment to damage an institution’s reputation as well as “damage the standing of the researcher within their institution; impede their research; damage their public reputation; or challenge the validity of their work” (Data & Society, 2016).

How can you prepare for online harassment? (adapted from Marwick et al. (2016) and Ketchum (2020))

1. Be proactive about online safety and security.

  • Consult your institution’s online security recommendations and request professional security expertise to advise researchers and offer security workshops and training.
  • Use Security Planner from Consumer Reports (developed by the citizenlab.ca) to audit your own online security and review other online safety guides, such as Zebra Crossing (an easy-to-use digital safety checklist).
  • Ensure your department Chair or Director, colleagues, staff, and senior administration are aware of your research, publications, public engagement, and social media activities if at risk.

2. Help to champion a proactive harassment plan and formal support at your institution.

Recommendations for institutions

  • Create an anticipatory plan for addressing online harassment at the institution. The institution’s media relations team should provide clear support and guidance on how to respond when faculty and students are subjected to research related harassment.
  • Designate a key senior person(s) and advocate at the institution who is knowledgeable about academic research methods, cybersecurity, social media, and harassment whom researchers and students can rely on for support.
  • Be clear about what actions the institution will take on behalf of researchers. This can include contacting the social media provider, organizing institutional supports, and managing reputational concerns that often arise from targeted harassment.
  • Be clear about what faculty colleagues, students, and staff should do if they are targeted: the institution should provide clear protocols in the event of doxing, trolling, and harassment.
  • Use the institution’s information technology services (ITS) to protect the researcher: filter institutional email accounts and secure research websites.
  • Do not release contact information without the explicit consent of the researcher.
  • Consider that simply directing faculty colleagues, students, and staff to a campus security service and/or city police services is often not appropriate BIPOC colleagues, women and 2SLGBTQ+ colleagues, staff, and students.

Recommendations for departments and faculty colleagues

  • Designate a senior, tenured colleague who can provide support, help with documenting the harassment, and ensure vulnerable colleagues, students, and staff have appropriate resources.
  • Be prepared to support your faculty colleagues, students, and staff if they are the targets of online harassment.
  • Be aware of available university resources, such as counselling services, ITS support, and policies to protect colleagues and students from harassment and harm related to research.

Sources

Conway, M. 2021. “Online Extremism and Terrorism Research Ethics: Researcher Safety, Informed Consent, and the Need for Tailored Guidelines.” Terrorism and Political Violence 33 (2): 367–380.

Data & Society. (2016). Online Harassment Information for Universities. https://datasociety.net/pubs/res/Online_Harassment_Information_Sheet-Oct-2016.pdf

Frangou, C. 2019. The growing problem of online harassment in academe. University Affairs (23 October 2019). https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/the-growing-problem-of-online-harassment-in-academe/

Ketchum, A. 2020. Report on the State of Resources Provided to Support Scholars Against Harassment, Trolling, and Doxxing While Doing Public Media Work, Medium (14 July 2020).  https://medium.com/@alexandraketchum/report-on-the-state-of-resources-provided-to-support-scholars-against-harassment-trolling-and-401bed8cfbf1

Marwick, A., Blackwell, L., & Lo, K. (2016). Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research and Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment (Data & Society Guide). New York: Data & Society Research Institute. https://datasociety.net/pubs/res/Best_Practices_for_Conducting_Risky_Research-Oct-2016.pdf

Rambukkana, N. (2019). The Politics of Gray Data: Digital Methods, Intimate Proximity, and Research Ethics for Work on the “Alt-Right.” Qualitative Inquiry, 25(3), 312–323. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800418806601.