The Ethics of Conducting Virtual Ethnography on Visual Platforms
Keywords:anonymity online, digital research ethics, Islam online, virtual ethnography, vulnerable populations research
For scholars, the internet provides a space to study diverse groups of people across the world and can be a useful way to bypass physical gender segregation and travel constraints. Despite the potential for new insights into people’s everyday life and increased attention from scholars, there is no standard set of ethics for conducting virtual ethnography on visually based platforms, like YouTube and Instagram. While publicly accessible social media posts are often understood to be a part of the public domain and thus do not require a researcher to obtain a user’s consent before publishing data, caution must be taken when studying members of a vulnerable community, especially those who have a history of surveillance, like African-American Muslims. Using a womanist approach, the author provides recommendations for studying vulnerable religious groups online, based on a case study of a YouTube channel, Muslimah2Muslimah, operated by two African-American Muslim women. The article provides an important contribution to the field of media studies because the author discusses a “dead” online community, where users no longer comment on the videos and do not maintain their own profiles, making obtaining consent difficult and the potential risks of revealing information to an unknown community hard to gauge.
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