What are the potential risks of moving participatory, community-engaged work to online or remote settings? How do we journey forward with care?
Whether it's a participatory documentary, a workshop on a sensitive or controversial issue of importance to a community, a 2SLGTBQ youth drop in, or a participatory research project, the shift to working online or remotely can introduce many new ethical issues. Although many of these ethical issues also exist when working ‘in-person’, new environments significantly shape or contour how these issues play out. New protocols may need to be adapted.
Informed by conversations with practitioners, the ethical considerations below invite us to think about the harms and benefits of shifting and adapting participatory work to online or remote settings.
We hope these considerations may provide a compass for reflection, and support practitioners in the design and facilitation of protocols or agreements for online or remote gatherings. This list is not exhaustive, nor finite.
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The conditions of COVID-19 have blurred the boundaries between private/public and home/work. These can create ethical challenges for both practitioners and participants, alike. Some may have children at home. People may inadvertently disclose activities in their home that they do not want others to see. This is particularly important when working with communities who are stigmatized, involved in illicit activity, live in an unsafe or abusive environment, or racialized communities who disproportionately experience state violence or oppression (e.g., relationships with the police, child protection). This requires facilitators to adapt and develop strategies that consider the safety and privacy of everyone involved. How might you recognize and account for these blurred boundaries in project design and facilitation?
“In working with youth, parents are sometimes [are] more present in COVID research conditions than they would be in a 'regular' space (e.g. wanting to supervise or listen in) which leads to ethical complications.” - Anonymous, Participatory Visual Methods practitioner
Privacy, confidentiality, and surveillance
Virtual environments introduce new privacy and confidentiality issues. More information (data) is now shared online, which can lead to potential data breaches. Sessions can also be recorded (by the host, or covertly, by participants). Many people do not have a private space to meet, and conversations can be overheard by others. Many people do not want to, or do not feel comfortable turning their cameras on. While recording can enhance accessibility, it can also create additional risk, especially for communities whose status may be precarious, or when discussing illicit or sensitive information. Privacy, confidentiality and surveillance issues are compounded by how quickly many practitioners needed to 'pivot' to online or remote settings, without proper institutional supports. What group participation guidelines might you set up at the beginning of a workshop or meeting to respect the privacy and confidentiality of those in the room? As zoom enters the world of ‘big tech’, where is data being stored, and who has access to it?
“So, all of a sudden I have to become an IT specialist to understand privacy and confidentiality and I don't get any support for that. And you may try to make your best decision, but the time it takes to learn all that is astonishing right? And you know, I probably have made a lot of mistakes at somebody’s expense and I just don't even know it. … But I'm expected to know that which makes me worried.” – Carol Strike, participatory researcher
“Forcing people to turn their camera [is like] "breaking into their homes" - Anonymous, Community Facilitator
Creating physical and emotional “safety”
Safety has become more complex in online/remote settings. While facilitators may strive to create a safer space, issues of physical and/or emotional safety remain, especially when discussing sensitive subject matter. For example, it may be difficult to know if someone is triggered if their camera is off. On the other hand, some may feel safer by obscuring their background. Some people may not feel comfortable having certain conversations, with others (e.g., parents, partners, roommates) nearby. It may be harder to create safety online or by phone, especially when working with a group who does not share established working norms or trust. Micro-aggressions and intersecting experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, or ableism may also be obscured in an online/remote setting. Unwanted visitors (e.g., Zoom hackers) may breach the space and cause harm. Careful planning and a commitment to care (from all involved) may contribute to creating a space where people feel safe enough to participate on their own terms. What new agreements or protocols may you need to establish for group safety?
”I have my youth, like in the bathtub like talking to me, right? And this [project] is about sexual and mental health and those youth want to talk about it and it’s still that challenging. And sometimes it’s at three in the morning when we can do work. We’re like, how are we going to recruit new kids who already don’t have comfort with this and don’t trust us yet? … How are we going to do that in their bathtub? It’s just not realistic, right?” – Shira Taylor, participatory researcher
Access and equity issues
Gathering online and remotely both increases and decreases barriers to participation. Technology and bandwidth access and quality is not available to all. Equity issues may be simultaneously obscured and more visible in these new settings. Power dynamics may be amplified. In the shift to online/remote settings, who is left behind? What projects or workshops may be made more accessible by meeting online or remotely? How are you considering access and equity issues in your project? A nuanced approach that accounts for intersectionality is paramount.
“ As it takes time for those of us who have access to technology and can troubleshoot, we often have to remember that those of us who with the least amount of means are those most affected by our collective learning curve” - Sam Tecle, Participatory Researcher
Extractive practices and industries
As the pandemic continues, those who are at risk of COVID-19 may experience increased invitations to participate in studies or projects. While tailored support may be needed, some projects may be hastily approved or designed. Do you have the necessary relationships with community groups to be conducting this project or research? Have you considered the necessary risks? How will communities benefit from this project? Do they have ownership or control over how their information or stories are collected and/or shared?
More technology can lead to more e-waste. Data storage and sharing has an environmental impact. One hour of video conferencing emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere1. As ‘big tech’ gains more power, this raises questions about how and where our information is bought and sold, and to what end. How might an environmental lens impact our ethical protocols or guidelines for community-engaged work?
Fair labour conditions
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed labour conditions. Facilitating online or by phone can require more preparation time than in-person. Engagement may be viewed as “magical”, but it takes commitment, careful preparation, and skill from those involved. In some cases, practitioners must juggle increased family and childcare responsibilities (because of working from home and COVID-19 stay-at-home orders). Many practitioners are gig workers, or part-time or precarious. Organizations, funders, and other institutions must consider labour, as a pivotal issue. If you are a community-engaged practitioner, how is your labour being supported? If you are an organization, how are you supporting in-house or freelance community-engaged practitioners within your agency?
“The like keener in me is like, wow, use this as an opportunity to get better as a facilitator, to like experiment with new ways of doing my job. And the like, person who cares about labour in me is like, let’s just be enough, ….let’s get by. Let’s just like survive this……. I feel very, very cautious and aware that the institution is already trying to create this … very neoliberal push towards micro credentials and technology, as a way of facilitating even fewer of us being full time permanent than before.” – Kate Klein, Community Facilitator
Obringer R, Rachunok B, Maia-Silva D, Arbabzadeh M, Nateghi R, Madani K. The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 2021;167:105389.