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Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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4.1 Is covert research ever ethical?

Now you will return to the issue of challenging contexts and sensitive topics. In Case study 1.1 – the imaginary youth club – you might have considered whether it was ethical to report casual chats without consent, to do nothing or even to go ‘undercover’ as a form of covert research strategy. Going undercover would mean that you do not disclose your presence. Some online facilitators may think this is better than disrupting the group.

Covert research is generally not encouraged as it does not allow informed and voluntary participation. However, it has been justified in some cases of online research where, despite trying, a researcher has not found it possible to invite informed consent and, in some other research situations, as in the following example:

Case study 1.3 Covert research

Julia Ebner is a researcher, counter terrorism expert and author of Going Dark: The Secret Social Life of Extremists (2020). Her work involves conducting covert undercover research online using fake identities as a way to understand extremist hate groups including far right neo-Nazi groups, Isis and trad wives – a return to traditional gender roles – and how they get around laws and radicalise people online through posts and gaming.

For what she considered to be ethical reasons, Ebner used her own time for the covert research where she infiltrated these groups, taking on the views of a newcomer who appeared to be naïve. She took care to avoid repeating or spreading the messages and, when she felt hate crimes had been committed, reported these to the security services (Thomson and Ebner, 2020).

Ebner reflects on the fear, hate and dehumanising impact of the ideologies of these groups:

There are times when I feel pessimistic about how these extremist movements have the potential, in the medium and long term, to completely destabilise our democracies, not just through intimidating opponents but manipulating normal, average users and radicalising sympathisers.

(Ebner, 2020).

But, she adds, researching the book also made her see a human side to people with extreme viewpoints. However disgusting she found their ideologies, she says she felt

empathy, even sympathy, for people’s fears. Because in the end there was always some kind of fear, or lack of love or recognition, that was driving individuals into those networks.

(Ebner, cited in Sturges, 2020).

She also analyses the threat to young people and might have been tempted to come to the aid of the young people. On coming across young people in neo-Nazi channels (the youngest she encountered claimed to be 14), Ebner had to resist the urge to engage with them individually and attempt to change their minds:

I had to keep telling myself that I will have a bigger impact by gathering information.

(Ebner, cited in Sturges, 2020).

In the next activity, you will listen to Julia talking about her research. We have chosen this example to help you think about the ethical considerations of bringing issues into the public domain through ethical research.

Activity 7 Justifications and adaptations by researchers

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Watch the 32-second video clip of Julia Ebner discussing her research for the BBC [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (open the video in a new tab or window by holding down Ctrl [or Cmd on a Mac] when you click on the link).

Having read Case study 1.3, reflect on Julia’s justification for her research approach and match up the issues and decisions below.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. Wanting to understand why extremists hold the views they do

  2. To reveal the extent and nature of extremist views which would otherwise be hidden from wider society

  3. Wanting to hear/observe the views of those in what might be considered a closed community of those holding antisocial views

  4. Concern about observing young people being influenced and sharing extremist views

  5. Not wanting her research activity to further spread the views of the hate groups

  • a.Taking a false identity to avoid being identified as a researcher

  • b.Behaving as a naïve social media user who does not repeat or spread messages

  • c.To embark on a study whose insights might help those in a position to counter extremism which offers an insider perspective

  • d.To tackle the study as a piece of covert online research

  • e.Resisting the temptation to challenge the views of the group in interactions with them which might have revealed her identity

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = d
  • 3 = a
  • 4 = e
  • 5 = b

Covert research like Ebner’s is not usually supported because of the lack of opportunities for forum participants to offer their consent to participate, and because entering this particular context might place her at risk should she become identified. She might be subjected to a backlash from those on the website and any such revelation would also have put the University’s reputation in the spotlight, which they would be keen to avoid. However, as accepted in the following advice provided by the British Educational Research Association (2018), covert research can be defensible, with agreed institutional support.

It is important for researchers to take account of the rights and interests of those indirectly affected by their research, and to consider whether action is appropriate – for example, they should consider whether it is necessary to provide information or obtain informed consent. In rare cases – for instance, in some politically volatile settings, or where researchers are investigating illegal activity, including suspected abuse – covert research may be defensible. In such cases approval must be obtained from an institutional ethics review committee.

(BERA, 2018, p. 7).

An alternative approach would have been to conduct a systematic review of published literature. Such a review could have included historical documentation relating to extremism, and might have offered the kind of insights Ebner was interested in pursuing around motivations and ideologies about extremism. It would still be relevant to consider ethical issues such as access to documentation, confidentiality and how to show respect to all concerned, so the challenges would be different, but could still provide an opportunity to put the spotlight on the issues of extremism.