#ethics: Digital spaces and ethical challenges

Dr Rachel Sharples1

1Western Sydney University, Penrith, Australia


Digital methodologies constitute a growing body of data for researchers. Digital legacies present unique opportunities to examine threads around time (continuity, immediacy), quantum (large sample sizes) and voice (broadening accessibility and reach). Increasingly, social media is where some of our key public discourses are occurring. However, this also brings distinct ethical challenges. The neoliberal university tends to have a tick box approach to ethics. These treat ethics in absolute terms, with no room for the nuances that shape engaged research or the emerging peculiarities of online spaces. Using the social media of asylum seekers in Australia’s detention centres as a case study, this paper traces some of these ethical challenges: How does informed consent work when the data sample includes thousands of posts and profiles. Is anonymity really an option, can it be guaranteed, are users asking for it? Can social media serve a journalistic purpose, reporting on circumstances that are otherwise inaccessible, and should it therefore be treated as public commentary? How do we navigate the public/private dichotomy in online spaces? As researchers working in digital spaces, these ethical challenges must be grappled with. That same responsibility lies with our ethics committees and the frameworks under which they operate.


Rachel Sharples is a researcher in the Challenging Racism Project, School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University. She gained her PhD from RMIT University in 2012. Rachel manages a number of research projects under the Challenging Racism Project banner, including on racism and anti-racism, racism on digital platforms, and Islamophobia. She also researches in the areas of refugees and migrant communities, ethnic and cultural relations, and spaces of resistance and solidarity.

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