How anonymous is anonymous?

I have an ethical dilemma in my research. I am looking at responses across platforms towards ‘secret sharers’ who share about domestic abuse on the Post Secret website. These postcards are anonymous, and are even published by only one person (although they are also often taken and put on facebook, other blogs and even flickr), so IP information and other identifying characteristics such as user names are hidden. The postcards are user-created, and often an analoguehodge-podge of images put together to create their desired message/secret. These secrets are often responded to in tweets, facebook comments, and on Post Secret’s own forum. What I am trying to work out is how to use (or not use) these images in my research – not least in future presentations of results. Permission to use the images is another matter, but what I am concerned with today is the potential harm that could come from using these pictures. You never know with these secrets if they are pictures of the abused, or stock photos, or download online, etc. There is, of course, a chance that these cards to depict the victim, and by using them in a presentation – even for the analysis of responses, not of the picture or secret itself – you may open the victim up to further abuse by ‘outing’ their secret. And yes, they are published online in a very popular weblog – but there is also a perception of anonymity, and by sending the card, the sender is agreeing to have them displayed on that site. So what is the ethically responsible thing to do? Describe the card, and do not use an image or screen capture (again, the permission to use the image is a different matter and must, of course, be received as well), or use the card as it is a published work? Difficult. I am leaning towards description, preferring to err on the side of caution – but would like to have a discussion about the ethics of this type of research.

cross posted from Visual Epidemic

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One Response to How anonymous is anonymous?

  1. Marita says:

    This is a very important discussion! I have thought a lot about these questions, especially when I worked on a computer application on how to deal with untracability of social security numbers for those with protected identities. I think you make the right choice on choosing descriptions instead of images. You’ll never know who is watching… unfortunately.

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