Workshop: Whose data is it anyway? Ethical, practical, and methodological challenges of data donation in messenger groups research

— with Sérgio Barbosa (U Coimbra), Katharina Knop-Hülß (HMTMH Hannover), Connie Moon Sehat (Hacks/Hackers), and Julian Kohne (GESIS)

When: Wednesday, August 30th, 2023, 1–4 pm
Where: Weizenbaum Institute + Zoom (hybrid)

Messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal, are increasingly used for all forms of political communication. They became important venues for people to talk about political issues, share news, and communicate with governmental institutions. Unlike public pages of social networking cites, closed messaging groups provided relatively intimate and controlled spaces, where political discussions can trigger political participation and activism. Enhanced privacy of these closed spaces attracted political groups that range from protesters and activists in authoritarian regimes to far-right organizations in the democratic states. 

Yet, political communication research is failing to keep pace with these new developments, especially in the area of closed groups’ communication research. The key challenge for the study of private messaging apps is exactly what makes them attractive for ordinary citizens and activist groups: their privateness. Chat group communication is end-to-end encrypted, and by design neither searchable nor accessible to outsiders. While various bypass methods, such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, and experiments have been proven fruitful in closed groups’ research, in many cases they cannot substitute analysis of the original user-generated content. Two common solutions for this methodological problem are data donation and chat scraping by accessing the groups. However, even when researchers gain access to the chat, they face multiple ethical dilemmas when dealing with the data. 

This workshop intends to tackle practical and ethical issues behind data collection, processing, and dissemination in the research of closed messaging groups. We asked four colleagues to provide their solutions and share their struggles and uncertainties about closed chat groups research. Sérgio Barbosa will share his experience with digital ethnography in WhatsApp groups and iterative procedure of obtaining participants’ consent. Katharina Knop-Hülß will talk about the procedure of obtaining informed consent from closed groups and about her content analysis of donated chats. Julian Kohne will present the platform for transparent data donation and will talk about his analysis of group members’ communicative patterns. Dr. Connie Moon Sehat will talk about ethical approaches to closed messaging research and the boundaries of “publicness”. The four short presentations will open the floor for joint conversation about pressing questions in closed messaging research.

Sérgio Barbosa is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra. Since August 2020, Sérgio has been a Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) fellow. In addition, he holds a Digital Humanism junior fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His research interests include the emerging forms of political participation vis-à-vis the possibilities afforded by chat apps, with emphasis on WhatsApp for digital activism and everyday social interactions.

Katharina Knop-Hülß is a PhD candidate / a research associate at Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media, Germany. Her research addresses media use and effects in general, and small groups in particular, especially under the premise that groups are permanently connected by mobile communication technologies. In the past, she has worked on non-professional secondary groups’ communication via mobile Instant messaging chats and investigated its members’ communicative patterns present in messages exchanged in closed group chats.  

Dr. Connie Moon Sehat serves as Researcher-at-Large for Hacks/Hackers, a global grassroots community of journalists and technologists who collaborate on shared projects focused on innovation in journalism. In her role, she is Principal Investigator of the NSF-supported Analysis, Response, and Toolkit for Trust (ARTT) project, an initiative that aims to support trust-building online conversations. For over twenty years, Connie has focused on the intersections of technology and democratic life, including the direction of projects such as NewsFrames at Global Voices, the New Orleans Research Collaborative, and ELMO (election, human rights, and health monitoring). Most recently, Connie served as a Senior Fellow for Media, Entertainment and Sport Industries at the World Economic Forum and also has previously worked for The Carter Center, Emory University, and The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Julian Kohne is part of the Designed Digital Data team at GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, and a PhD student in the molecular psychology lab at Ulm University. At GESIS, his work is concerned with building an easy to use, transparent and secure infrastructure for collecting mobile survey and smartphone usage data for social science research. At Ulm University, he is investigating how interpersonal relationships can be quantified using chat logs, specifically donated WhatsApp chat logs. To do so, he is developing interactive methods for transparent data donations, and investigates how social relationships are expressed through different communication patterns.

Co-organized with Olga Pasitselska (U Groningen).