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The Need for Better Extremism & Disinformation Researcher Safety Training

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Oxford Disinformation & Extremism Lab Research Broderick Brody McDonald

Oxford Disinformation & Extremism Lab | Broderick McDonald

Before policy solutions to countering disinformation & extremism can be proposed, researchers must be able to safely study and understand these topics. However, many researchers examining disinformation and extremism can experience mental health risks when their job requires prolonged or frequent exposure to extremism content or disinformation. A recent study found that "two thirds [of researchers] reported some harms, with more than half saying those harms were significant". Unfortunately, significant institutional and methodological obstacles make it difficult for researchers to study these topics safely. Doxing and online campaigns by both individuals or states can be dangerous and limit scholarship on issues that need greater investigation. Early career researchers and graduate students face the most significant risks as they often do not have as much experience dealing with extremist content and they report feeling additional pressure to take risks, spend extended periods analysing primary sources, and publish on such issues as they begin their careers. Academics and industry practitioners also report mental health risks associated with viewing extreme, or graphic content from violent extremist groups, especially when exposure is frequent.

Unfortunately, most researchers today receive little to no training specifically tailored towards researching extremism and disinformation safely and mitigating the mental health risks. While training can help limit these risks, it is often incumbent on the researcher to seek out advice and best practices, or risk going it alone. In part, we have launched the Oxford Disinformation and Extremism Lab to help address these issues and give early career researchers, academics, and graduate students in Oxford and beyond a place to connect, share, and learn about these risks while collaborating with others who understand the challenges firsthand.

In 2024, we will launch out research safety training workshop series both in-person and online. Our researcher safety training workshops will be free-to-access and provide participants with best practices, mental health precautions, and operational security tools when collecting data on extremism, terrorism, and influence operations. Recent research has focussed on the security and mental health risks associated with collecting research on online harms and prolonged exposure to extremist content, but limited training is available. These risks are especiialy prevalent among early career researchers and graduate students who are often not provided with any training, or adequate training, by their institutions. This lack of safety and mental health training formed parted of our inspiration to launch this initiative and will be freely accessible to all researchers and practitioners. Our research safety workshops build on research from VoxPol and the RESOLVE Network, along with an in-person workshop with researchers and industry leaders at the Terrorism and Social Media (TASM) Conference in 2022.

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