Below is my contribution the 2018 Computers and Writing roundtable, “Behind the Scenes of Digital Aggression Research: Identity, Method, Action, and Self-Care.”
I want to start by recalling last year’s Computers and Writing conference in Findlay, Ohio. In the last session on the last day, I stood on a big stage with a big projector screen and showed a few internet memes depicting violence against women and girls. Specifically, the memes I discussed in my presentation featured provocative text and photographs of beaten or partially naked women; the primary intent of these memes was to inflame social media users’ reactions to rape and sex scandals that emerged during the 2016 Presidential election. My purpose in showing these images was to provide examples of networked misogyny and demonstrate how memes work rhetorically to spread hateful political ideology—xenophobia, male power, and white nationalism—within an online community.
My larger collection of memes from the election season also touches on anti-feminist and sexist themes more broadly, such as the denigration of women’s political activism and agency, the scapegoating of Muslim and immigrant women, and the portrayal of feminists as targets of violence. Since I don’t have much time today, I won’t go into detail about the project, but I would be happy to share more information about it later.
Erika’s idea for this roundtable has been an opportunity for me to think harder about, not only why I have chosen to study communities that deal in hatred and vile bigotry, but also how to pursue this subject matter while honoring my commitment to feminist research methodology. Heidi McKee and James Porter have defined a feminist research methodology as one that entails “reflective and ethical inquiry procedures” and is “strongly attuned to power in gender relations and to gender inequity” (154, 155). They go on to identify six key “ethical dispositions” (155) or practices of feminist researchers. Many or all of these are at odds with the approach I have taken in my project. In particular, I would like to use their framework to introduce some dilemmas when a feminist researcher is in an antagonistic relationship with the community or group being researched.
For example, McKee and Porter define care and respect as qualities of a feminist research position, writing that “respect for participants means acknowledging their agency, heeding their wishes, consulting their wisdom” (155). But how can feminist researchers acknowledge the agency of community members who make and circulate texts that deny and attack the researcher’s own agency, identity, and personhood? What if a researcher, in fact, does not fully respect the people or groups that she studies?
McKee and Porter also write that feminist research should be dialogic and transparent (156). They advocate for an open line of communication between researcher and participant, with the research process clearly documented and visible to others. However, some concealment or avoidance of openness may be necessary in situations when the researcher does not feel “ideologically compatible” (Falcone) with the community being researched. The anthropologist Jessica Falcone, who studies extremist religious communities, writes that while an “observer” stance is ideal, in reality online researchers also do a fair bit of “spying” or straight-up “lurking” (Morrow, Hawkins, and Kern), and even more so in antagonistic research relationships. Controversial topics may also demand some “ethical leeway” in terms of how much a researcher reveals and conceals about herself. In my case, I did reach out to some prolific alt-right meme makers to find out more about their rhetorical strategies and the material, embodied conditions behind the immense labor they were investing. Unsurprisingly, with my political views so clearly visible on my own social media, I had no luck. But I did consider, could or should I create a “dummy” account to better hide—or perhaps protect—my identity, especially in light of how often women academics and journalists experience harassment and organized attacks online?
Lastly, McKee and Porter say that feminist research methodology pursues not only production of knowledge but also improvement of the lives of others (155). In showing violent memes on that projector screen last year—in using my platform to extend the reach of hate speech into the space of our conference—did I really work to improve the lives of others? Or did I amplify these messages and create a noxious space for my audience? In her just-released report on this topic, Whitney Phillips outlines best practices for journalists covering extremists, aggressors, and other bad actors online. Her overall conclusion is that publishing stories about harassment campaigns and harmful online content does indeed amplify this content. To minimize risk of harm, Phillips recommends a reflective, critically conscious decision-making process, not unlike the feminist research ethics outlined by McKee and Porter. Feminist researchers who study hostile groups may benefit from following some of the best practices that Phillips puts forward in her report.
I know I’ve brought more questions than answers, advice, or wisdom to our conversation, but I selfishly hope that in raising these questions I am taking steps towards enacting a feminist research approach in my own work.
Falcone, Jessica Marie. “‘I Spy…’: The (Im)possibilities of Ethical Participant Observation with Antagonists, Religious Extremists, and Other Tough Nuts.” Michigan Discussions in Anthropology, 2010, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.0522508.0018.108.
McKee, Heidi, and James Porter. “Rhetorica Online: Feminist Research Practices in Cyberspace.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson, U of Pittsburgh P, 2010, pp. 152–70.
Morrow, Oona, Roberta Hawkins, and Leslie Kern. “Feminist Research in Online Spaces.” Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 22, no. 4, Apr. 2015, pp. 526–43. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2013.879108.
Phillips, Whitney. “The Oxygen of Amplification.” Data & Society, May 2018, https://datasociety.net/output/oxygen-of-amplification/.
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