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Researcher Safety, Ethics, and Mental Health

Our resource guide provides early-career researchers and graduate students with practical and tailored best practices to ensure that research on extremism and disinformation is conducted safely, ethically, and with minimal risk to mental health and wellbeing.

Researching terrorist and violent extremist content (TVEC), alongside disinformation, involves unique risks that are rarely covered by the research safety, ethics, and well-being programmes offered to early-career researchers and graduate students. Young researchers, those new to the field, and minorities are often at highest risk when studying and publishing on these issues. In our experience, minimal to no training was available within university settings, which made this process difficult, risky, and exhausting. Indeed, as a seminal report by the REASSURE (Researcher, Security, Safety, and Resilience) project found, nearly half of its 39 ‘interviewees had no awareness of the potential risks of researching in this sub-field before beginning their research’. With that said, research into the process of researching extremism is increasingly receiving attention amongst scholars and others working in this space, exemplified not least by the REASSURE project. Whether it is ethical questions involved in studying extremism, the dangers of vicarious trauma, or practical tips about operational and information security, a flurry of reports, peer-reviewed articles, podcast episodes, workshops, and conference panels have emerged of late dealing with such matters, amongst others.

One of the goals of OxDEL is to therefore help correct the aforementioned gap and provide detailed and tailored advice on how to safely conduct research into extremism and disinformation. To start this process, we have developed a succinct guide focussing on researcher safety, ethics, and mental health, each section drawing on previous conference presentations, existing scholarship on researcher mental health, and our own personal experiences. Researching violent extremism and terrorism can be a daunting, isolating process. Researchers are encouraged to navigate this field with best practices and a supportive community. If you are grappling with similar issues in your research, please do not hesitate to email us with specific inquiries or examples at mail@oxdisinformationextremismlab.com and we will endeavour to suggest practical and safe methods. Reach out to your university or employer research ethics office in the first and last instance to ensure that all approaches used comply with institutional standards.

Crucially, this resource guide is neither legal nor medical advice. All users should seek professional advice from their universities, employers, or institutions to ensure that all relevant standards and obligations are met in full. In this guide we cannot cover everything that has been published on researcher safety, ethics, and mental health — but we will focus on practical, accessible, and actionable ideas which you can use to start thinking about best practices for undertaking research in this area. Importantly, this guide is targeted at researchers engaged with studying online patterns of extremism and disinformation. While there are valuable guides and research into comparable aspects about researcher safety and ethics involved in physical fieldwork in this area, such topics are largely beyond the scope of the present guide. Additionally, the resource guide is aimed at early-career researchers and graduate students; however, it may be used by anyone in the field. It is also intended for researchers based in the UK, albeit some sections may be applicable to those in other countries. All suggestions are tailored specifically for those studying extremism and disinformation, unlike general guides which cover adjacent disciplines, such as criminology and sociology. Our resource guide includes links to several helpful articles and online tutorials, as well as reports that have begun to measure the effects of this labour on researchers and practitioners. The guide covers the following subsections:

I. Researcher Safety (Personal Privacy, Doxing, and Legal Risks)

II. Researcher Ethics (Data Storage and Protections, GDPR, and Marginalized Communities)

III. Mental Health and Wellbeing (Mitigating Measures, Vicarious Trauma, Counselling, and Research Hygiene)

IV. Additional Issues and Readings (Institutional Change) 

I. Researcher Safety

Researchers studying terrorism and violent extremism, alongside disinformation, may confront significant risks and dangers. It is important to learn about these and how to mitigate them well before starting a new project. These risks range from operational security and doxing, to website takedowns, lost data, and even hacking attempts. Planning ahead and mitigating the risk of such dangers is crucial when conducting research. Be aware of your online presence, use secure communication channels, and prioritize self-care above all else. Be cautious and do not engage with extremist individuals or groups online. Lastly, always consider the explanatory value and utility of examining violent extremism content. It may be as productive to examine proxies or quantitative measurements (e.g., frequency of posting or changes in posting behaviour that are correlated to political events or developments on the ground).

  • Before any new research project, ask yourself and your colleagues about the utility and importance of examining violent extremism content in significant quantities. There is, unfortunately, some instance where this may be considered productive but often times it produces limited explanatory value. Consider if quantitative measure (e.g., frequency with which an extremist group posts or conducts attacks) is a more useful and safe measure of the phenomenon being investigated.

  • Be aware of the risks when your home address or other personal information is shared publicly, and monitor your online presence and digital footprint. To ensure that your home address or other personally identifying information is safe and secure (especially on corporate registries and other platforms which are publicly accessible) consider using a data removal service and familiarise yourself with the protections afforded under GDPR.

  • Check to see if your university or department offers free access to a VPN service and secure cloud storage account. If not, consider asking your committee or department if they can cover the costs of these tools from a research support fund. These are essential tools for researcher safety and should not be viewed as a bonus, but rather as the baseline standard.

  • Use pseudonymized and anonymized accounts when necessary, provided that you have ethical clearance. Consider using a pseudonym or anonymous account for all online research, especially if this involves interviewing or collecting data on extremist individuals or groups.

  • Utilise encrypted communications when necessary, such as Signal and Proton Mail, and ensure that encryption and privacy settings are enabled for other platforms (e.g., prominent platforms such as Telegram do not include all privacy and encryption protections by default; as such, review your application settings frequently).

  • Be cautious when engaging with extremist individuals or groups online. Avoid confrontations, arguments, or discussions and refrain from sharing personal information or opinions that could put you at risk. We are here to observe and analyse rather than launch ad hoc interventions.

  • Remember that the effects of vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress (STS) are cumulative. Many early-career researchers who enter the field may feel okay at first. However, several months or years of conducting this work can have significant impacts. As Audrey Gagnon and Nicola Mathieson summarise:​

It is important for researchers to understand the risks and symptoms of STS when they are investigating extremist content online. By being properly informed about the risks of researching online extremism, researchers, supervisors, and institutions can better prepare and support researcher wellbeing with the aim of mitigating risks rather than responding to harm.

Accordingly, always set boundaries and prioritise self-care. Establish clear boundaries with research participants or material and prioritise self-care to avoid burnout and emotional distress. 

  • Researchers must always check to ensure that they are complying with all laws governing research in their jurisdiction. Given that researchers may be based in different countries, we cannot give specific advice on this, but it is essential to check BEFORE beginning this research.

  • Always use a VPN and separate private browser account to mask your location and keep it safe. If possible, use only one device which is separate from your personal device during data collection (this may be a computer at the office or a university). Additionally, if you are a student conducting research off campus or beyond eduroam, it may be beneficial to utilise your university’s VPN to mitigate against the possibility of your web traffic being misconstrued or flagged by authorities.

  • Some universities have developed voluntary or mandatory declarations for researchers to sign before undertaking a project that delves into security-sensitive material. The purpose behind such forms is to create a declaratory statement about the intent of research in case of potential misinterpretation at a later point by law enforcement authorities. Check if such a statement exists at your university. If it does not, ensure that you retain a ‘paper trail’ clearly demonstrating that the research is for academic purposes.

  • Be aware of the dangers of doxing, particularly if you are an early-career researcher or individual who may be at greater risk of unwarranted targeting, including women, persons of colour, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Doxing can involve serious consequences, such as online harassment, deepfakes, hacking, identity theft, and even physical harm. Be cautious when sharing personal information online and take steps to protect your privacy. As alluded to above, both men and women face doxing and online abuse but statistically women and minority groups face these issue more frequently. It is important to take gender into account and develop unique and specific interventions that work for an individual's needs.

  • Always keep personal information private. Avoid sharing personal information, such as your address, phone number, or email address, online or with research participants. Even if you have a social media page or personal website, this still applies.

  • If your account on a platform is temporarily removed, reach out to colleagues in the trusty & safety community to ask for tailored guidance on navigating the terms of service. While no white list currently exists for researchers, you may be able to get individualised advice and guidance. In any case, always back-up your work to a secure storage provider so that takedowns do not destroy months of research.

  • While research projects will often necessitate one to track ongoing patterns in online content, the Repository of Extremist Aligned Documents (READ) – developed by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation – offers a valuable resource for those who may be engaging in qualitative or historical research into extremist ideologies. As the material is curated and any access thereto controlled, READ is a safer method to locate such content.

  • Warning: Be cautious when traveling with your personal computer or device if it contains content that may be banned in other countries. Researchers and academics frequently travel to present research and attend conferences in other countries, but laws regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression may differ in these jurisdictions. Review local laws and regulations well in advance to ensure you are not stopped at the airport or hotel before an important conference.

Further Reading:

Maura Conway, 'Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research', Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 1 (2017): 77-98.

Ashley A. Mattheis, 'Researching Hate: Negotiating the Digital as Field Site in the Study of Extremist Cultures and Propaganda Online', in Fieldwork Experiences in Criminology and Security Studies: Methods, Ethics, and Emotions, eds. Antonio M. Díaz-Fernández, Cristina Del-Real, and Lorena Molnar (Cham: Springer, 2023), 589-608.

Aya Yadlin, Ruth Tsuria, and Asaf Nissenbaum, 'Understanding Researcher Risk and Safety in Qualitative Research Online', Digital Society 3, article 4 (2024), https://doi.org/10.1007/s44206-024-00089-z.

Aaron Y. Zelin, '"Highly Nuanced Policy is Very Difficult to Apply at Scale": Examining Researcher Account and Content Takedowns Online', Policy & Internet 15, no. 4 (2023): 559-74.

'Resources', VOX-Pol, last modified September 28, 2023, https://voxpol.eu/researcher-resources/. 

'Vox-Pol Workshop: The Next Gen Academic Survival Series - ECR Safety, Wellbeing and Ethics', Vox-Pol, March 21, 2024, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=h-jYh6OaWZw&ab_cha.

II. Researcher Ethics

Ethical considerations should be the starting place for any researcher before undertaking a project. Researchers must obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality and anonymity, and avoid causing harm or distress to participants. Additionally, researchers must be transparent about their research goals and methods, consider the potential impact on marginalised communities, and comply with GDPR regulations. It is essential to contact your university or employer's Research Ethics Office to ensure that you have obtained ethical clearance and are following all necessary guidelines.

  • As a specified authority, section 26 (1) of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 obliges universities to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Pursuant to their Prevent duties, universities are therefore expected to develop safeguarding policies, particularly around the use of ‘security-sensitive research material’. Check the details of your university’s policy.

  • Always use secure storage and encryption for data (e.g., VeraCrypt). Ask if your institution offers access to a safe storage service and use this for all documents, rather than retaining it on personal devices.

  • Ask yourself how long you will retain any data gathered before deleting or removing it. There should always be a set time for this to avoid storing it for longer than necessary, protecting both yourself and any participants. Moreover, against the backdrop of GDPR requirements, consider whether data will be anonymised at the point of collection or after. Lastly, avoid sharing identifying information about participants.​

  • Store data securely on protected or encrypted cloud storage or on password-protected external hard drives not connected to the internet. Review the data storage and protection standards set by your university or employer's Research Ethics Office.

  • If interviewing former extremists or human subjects, always carefully consider how you can avoid causing harm or distress to participants. The first principle should be to 'do no harm'. Be aware of the potential emotional toll of discussing extremism and disinformation, and take all necessary steps to minimise risks.

  • If the project involves personal data or interviews, always seek informed consent before conducting interviewing (check with your institution to determine what they require for this), and transparent about your research goals and methods. Clearly explain your research goals and methods to participants and stakeholders. 

  • Consider the potential impact of your research on marginalised communities, and the risks that some communities are frequently stereotyped. Always be aware of the potential consequences of your research on vulnerable groups, and take steps to minimize harm.

  • Carefully consider whether it is academically useful or important to share anonymised examples of extremist content and propaganda on widely-used platforms such as Twitter/X, before posting. If a group is still relatively obscure or under the radar, consider whether this could inadvertently help them gain exposure. Similarly, ask yourself whether sufficient information is yet known about an attack before commenting on it.

  • In the process of data collection, such as data scraping, ensure that you comply not only with legal restrictions, but the terms of service of individual platforms.

  • Make sure you are complying with all GDPR regulations. Never publish or share usernames or channel names of extremist accounts, as this may not only amplify their exposure, but could violate their right to privacy and place them at risk.

  • All researchers must email their university or employers Research Ethics Office to ensure that they have obtained ethical clearance before starting a project and all standards are being followed throughout the lifespan of their research projects. This guide is meant to cover the basics and help you approach research in this area, but you must comply with all regulations and guidelines set by your university or employer.​​

Further Reading:

Maura Conway, 'Online Extremism and Terrorism Research Ethics: Researcher Safety, Informed Consent, and the Need for Tailored Guidelines', Terrorism and Political Violence 33, no. 2 (2021): 367-80.

Ashley A. Mattheis, 'Researching Hate: Negotiating the Digital as Field Site in the Study of Extremist Cultures and Propaganda Online', in Fieldwork Experiences in Criminology and Security Studies: Methods, Ethics, and Emotions, eds. Antonio M. Díaz-Fernández, Cristina Del-Real, and Lorena Molnar (Cham: Springer, 2023), 589-608.

John F. Morrison, Eke Bont, and Andrew Silke, 'Ethics and Terrorism Research: The Rights, Safety and Vulnerability of Participant and Researcher', in A Research Agenda for Terrorism Studies, eds. Lara Frumkin, John Morrison, and Andrew Silke (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2023), 241-59.

Ted Reynolds, 'Ethical and Legal Issues Surrounding Academic Research into Online Radicalisation: A UK Experience', Critical Studies on Terrorism 5, no. 3 (2012): 499-513.

Manjana Sold and Julian Junk, Researching Extremist Content on Social Media Platforms: Data Protection and Research Ethics Challenges and Opportunities (London: Global Network on Extremism & Technology, 2021), https://gnet-research.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-Report-Researching-Extremist-Content-Social-Media-Ethics.pdf.

II. Mental Health and Wellbeing

Conducting research on extremism and disinformation can be emotionally and mentally taxing. Avoid conducting this sort of research if you are experiencing major stresses or emotional pressures in your day-to-day life as they are likely to amplify the issues faced here. It is essential to establish healthy boundaries with your research and prioritise self-care. Your mental health is the most important thing and nothing is worth jeopardizing it. Accordingly, seek support from colleagues and mental health professionals, and set realistic goals and deadlines. Additionally, engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfilment outside of research, working in a well-lit environment, and following best practices from leading technology firms can help reduce stress and improve wellbeing. Prioritising wellbeing, self-care, and mental health is integral to produce sustained and impactful research.

  • Only work on extremism and disinformation research during regular scheduled office hours and do not take it home with you. Avoid working on this research outside of work hours and give yourself time to speak with colleagues, friends, and family about issues that disturbed or challenged you.

  • Within some trust & safety teams, specific interventions and training have helped to prevent harms. These can include seemingly minor, but practical, steps such as shrinking the display to reduce visual exposure, turning on black and white monochrome displays to reduce visual stimulation, disabling auto-play (e.g., YouTube) and auto-download (e.g., WhatsApp and Telegram), and turning down the volume when reviewing extremist content or violent videos. One may also use browser plugins to blur on-screen images, in order to avoid ‘inadvertently view[ing] a graphic image’. Research in this area, however, may also require more substantial interventions, such as meeting with a counsellor.

  • Consider requesting a budget from your department or employer to hire a counsellor. Discuss this with your supervisor and, if necessary, ask them to write you a letter to help advocate for this. Regular check-ins with a counsellor can help you manage stress and anxiety. This option is comparatively more accessible with the option of online therapy and counselling. However, this option remains unavailable for many, in which case engaging with a supportive research community may prove valuable.

  • Schedule specific times to discuss your research and data collection with friends, colleagues, and supervisors. Regularly discussing your research can help you process your emotions and hear how others deal with self-care as you develop new systems that work for you.​​

  • Prioritize self-care, take regular breaks, and engage in activities that bring you joy. These may appear as minor interventions, but as a recent report by the Global Network on Extremism & Technology highlighted, emphasising self-care and prioritizing breaks into your calendar can serve as a valuable ‘coping strategy’, which may help keep non-work times protected and limit adverse effects that may arise from the regular viewing of extremist content.

  • If you are experiencing major stress, emotional pressure, or family issues during a project consider stepping back from this work while you process and heal. The effects of vicarious trauma are cumulative and add up over time or when there are multiple stressors in an individual's life.

  • Research into extremism and disinformation may affect individuals and groups differently. Women and minority groups often confront greater abuse online and our response should take this into account.

  • Engage in activities that bring you joy and fulfilment outside of research. Make time for activities that bring you joy and fulfilment, and prioritize self-care above all else. Research is what we do at work but it does not define us and it should not take up too much of your life.

  • Always work in a well-lit environment with plenty of natural light. A well-lit environment can help improve your mood and keep the research in perspective. Do not work on these kind of issues when isolated or going through family or emotional distress.

  • Work alongside colleagues or other early-career researchers studying similar topics. Collaborating with others can help one process and deal with the issues as they come up. In our experience, most folks in the research community are very willing to schedule a chat or grab a coffee; do not hesitate to reach out to them.

  • Notwithstanding the above, ensure that you are cognisant of your surroundings. Avoid viewing security-sensitive material in public spaces which could cause distress to others or raise concerns about your reasons for accessing said material.

Further Reading:

Peter King, 'Building Resilience for Terrorism Researchers', Vox-Pol, September 19, 2018, https://voxpol.eu/building-resilience-for-terrorism-researchers/?_gl=1*e1mof*_ga*MTMxNDQ1OTIwNC4xNzEzMzUyNzc0*_ga_E04HRWSYJ0*MTcxMzgxNTYwMS40LjAuMTcxMzgxNTYwMS4wLjAuMA. 

Maddie Cannon, 'Can’t Stand the Heat?: Best Practices and Institutional Responsibilities to Safeguard Extremism Researchers', Global Network on Extremism & Technology, December 11, 2023, https://gnet-research.org/2023/12/11/cant-stand-the-heat-best-practices-and-institutional-responsibilities-to-safeguard-extremism-researchers/.

Miron Lakomy and Maciej Bożek, Understanding the Trauma-Related Effects of Terrorist Propaganda on Researchers (London: Global Network on Extremism & Technology, 2023), https://gnet-research.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/GNET-35-Researcher-trauma_web.pdf.

'Researcher Welfare 2: Mental and Emotional Well-being and Self Care', VOX-Pol, last modified September 8, 2023, https://voxpol.eu/researcher-welfare-2-wellbeing/. 

Giancarlo Fiorella, 'How to Maintain Mental Hygiene as an Open Source Researcher', Bellingcat, November 23, 2022, https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/2022/11/23/how-to-maintain-mental-hygiene-as-an-open-source-researcher/.

Audrey Gagnon and Nicola Mathieson, 'Working with Extremist Content Online: Strategies to Improve Researcher Wellbeing', RightNow!, August 15, 2023, https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-and-events/right-now/2023/working-with-extremist-content-online.html.

Ronan Lee, 'Research in the Information Age and the Risks of Researcher Vicarious Trauma', Social Science Information 63, no. 1 (2024): 3-24.

Ioannis Sarridis, Jochen Spangenberg, Olga Papadopoulou, and Symeon Papadopoulos, 'Mitigating Viewer Impact From Disturbing Imagery Using AI Filters: A User-Study', International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction (2024): 1-12, https://doi.org/10.1080/10447318.2024.2313890. 

'Working with Traumatic Imagery', Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, August 12, 2014, https://dartcenter.org/content/working-with-traumatic-imagery.

'Institutionalising Counterterrorism Practitioner Welfare', Tech Against Terrorism (podcast), September 7, 2023, https://podcast.techagainstterrorism.org/1684819/13541258.

IV. Additional Issues and Readings

There are a few broader institutional issues which are important to address. While we have plenty of responsibility for our own self-care as individuals, universities, supervisors, managers, and companies can help foster a more healthy and supportive research community through their policies and practices.  

  • Granting bodies and research councils should ensure that as part of the marking criteria, proposed projects will be evaluated in part based on the provisions made to protect researcher safety and well-being. Taking this kind of an institutional approach is essential to ensuring that there is 'safety-by-design' built in the RFP and applications process.

  • Collaborate with other researchers and experts in your field. It is always better to do this work as part of a team which can support each other. Share knowledge and resources with other researchers and experts, and seek guidance when needed.​

  • We hope you will not experience online harassment or backlash as part of your research; however, it is ideal to have a plan in place for emergency situations, and be prepared for online harassment or doxing if it occurs. Vox-Pol offers an excellent guide for this under its privacy section.

  • Senior Researchers and Principal Investigators should ensure that research assistants and interns are not overloaded with exposure to terrorist or violent extremist content. If junior employees are asked to conduct this research or undertake intensive data collection, consider allocating part of the project budget to cover self-care, debriefings, and/or access to a counsellor.

  • We must always consider the legal and ethical implications of research before starting. This guide is not legal advice and should only be used to start exploring these issues in more depth. Always seek professional legal advice or professional medical advice.

Further Reading on the Impact of Researching Extremism and Disinformation:

Joel Busher, Leena Malkki, and Sarah Marsden, eds. The Routledge Handbook on Radicalisation and Countering Radicalisation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2024).

Elizabeth Pearson, Joe Whittaker, Till Baaken, Sara Zeiger, Farangiz Atamuradova, and Maura Conway, Online Extremism and Terrorism Researchers’ Security, Safety, and Resilience: Findings from the Field (Vox-Pol, 2023), https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/50163857/DCUJ9968_VOX_Online_Extremism_and_Terrorism_Researchers230209.pdf. 

Ashley A. Mattheis and Ashton Kingdon, 'Does the Institution have a Plan for That? Researcher Safety and the Ethics of Institutional Responsibility', in Researching Cybercrimes: Methodologies, Ethics, and Critical Approaches, eds. Anita Lavorgna and Thomas J. Holt (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 457-72.

Casey Fiesler, Nathan Beard, and Brian C. Keegan, 'No robots, Spiders, or Scrapers: Legal and Ethical Regulation of Data Collection Methods in Social Media Terms of Service', Proceedings of the international AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 14 (2020): 187-96.

Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills, and David Miller, 'Secrecy, Coercion and Deception in Research on 'Terrorism' and "Extremism"', Contemporary Social Science 15, no. 2 (2020): 134-52.

Farangiz Atamuradova and Carlotta Nanni, Commissioning Research on Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned from the STRIVE Global Program (Hedayah, 2020), https://hedayah.com/app/uploads/2021/09/RSVE_RVESeries_AtamuradovaNanni_June2020.pdf.

Libby Bishop and Daniel Gray, 'Ethical Challenges of Publishing and Sharing Social Media Research Data', in Advances in Research Ethics and Integrity, Volume 2: The Ethics of Online Research, ed. Kandy Woodfield (Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018), 159-87.

Bharath Ganesh and Jonathan Bright, 'Countering Extremists on Social Media: Challenges for Strategic Communication and Content Moderation', Policy & Internet 12, no. 1 (2020): 6-19.

Kateira Aryaeinejad, Alastair Reed, Emma Heywood, and Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, Researching Violent Extremism: Considerations, Reflections, and Perspectives (RESOLVE Network, 2023), https://www.resolvenet.org/system/files/2023-05/RESOLVE%20RSV%20Edited%20Volume_FINALMay2023.pdf. 

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