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Internet Research Ethics for the Social Age

New Challenges, Cases, and Contexts


Edited By Michael Zimmer and Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda

The continuous evolution of internet and related social media technologies and platforms have opened up vast new means for communication, socialization, expression, and collaboration. They also have provided new resources for researchers seeking to explore, observe, and measure human opinions, activities, and interactions. However, those using the internet and social media for research – and those tasked with facilitating and monitoring ethical research such as ethical review boards – are confronted with a continuously expanding set of ethical dilemmas. Internet Research Ethics for the Social Age: New Challenges, Cases, and Contexts directly engages with these discussions and debates, and stimulates new ways to think about – and work towards resolving – the novel ethical dilemmas we face as internet and social media-based research continues to evolve. The chapters in this book – from an esteemed collection of global scholars and researchers – offer extensive reflection about current internet research ethics and suggest some important reframings of well-known concepts such as justice, privacy, consent, and research validity, as well as providing concrete case studies and emerging research contexts to learn from.

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Chapter Thirteen: Participant Anonymity and Participant Observations: Situating the Researcher within Digital Ethnography (James Robson)


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Participant Anonymity AND Participant Observations

Situating the Researcher within Digital Ethnography



Participant anonymity lies at the heart of the majority of ethical research frameworks in the social sciences. Wherever human interactions and human beings themselves are the focus of the research, there is an expectation that researchers should protect their participants from harm by preserving their privacy and ensuring participant data are anonymous (BERA, 2011; British Psychological Society, 2009). This is reflected in the Association of Internet Researchers’ ethical framework, which adopts a human subjects model approach. Although acknowledging that some online content can be viewed as public and freely available (see Bassett & O’Riordan, 2002), this framework advocates the need for participant privacy through anonymity in the majority of digital contexts (Ess & AoIR Ethics Working Committee, 2002; Markham & Buchanan, 2012).

However, a key feature of the internet is its “persistence, searchability and replicability” (Jones, 2011, p. 3). Under these conditions it can be extremely difficult to remove all traces from data that may link back to individuals (Zimmer, 2010), making it difficult to ensure privacy and anonymity for research participants. In the context of qualitatively oriented research, one of the key challenges of maintaining privacy and anonymity for participants involves the use of direct quotations taken from accessible online contexts (Beaulieu & Estalella, 2011; King, 1996; Townsend & Wallace, 2016). Online posts and interactions can...

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