Horizon Blog

Everything in Moderation – Coming to an End

As part of this project, we were keen to engage with communities that use online media platforms providing E2EE (End to end encryption) messaging facilities, i.e. WhatsApp, SnapChat and Reddit, to better understand peoples’ behaviour whilst using these services.  We found this to be particularly challenging, however managed to speak to 4 members of public online groups and 2 of private groups. Whilst not specifically E2EE users and some further analysis of the interviews still required, we discovered some interesting things, which we aim to publish later.

During our work we applied for a Global Challenges Research Fund and Newton Fund Consolidation Award to carry out a sister project with colleagues at the Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) in Zimbabwe.  We were successful in obtaining funding which enabled us to host a visit from Calvin Mugauri and organise a competition for students at HIT, which involved them identifying a challenge connected to the moderation of E2EE online communities.  The funding also supported Calvin to conduct 20 interviews with professionals in Zimbabwe with expertise in social media and online moderation. In Zimbabwe, WhatsApp is by far the most popular app used across the population, so moderation already needs to attend to E2E encryption. This is therefore of particular interest to us and we are currently analysing the interviews to compare moderation practices across UK and Zimbabwean contexts.

Throughout our research, we worked with Horizon’s cross cutting theme and we held regular responsible and innovation (RI) sessions, facilitated by members of the hoRRIzon 2.0 project (RI lead of our project). We found these to be extremely useful to identify project responsibility issues, reflect throughout and plan accordingly.  We are now aiming to apply for impact funding to share our experiences and carry out some RRI activities with Calvin and his research team in Zimbabwe.

Stakeholder engagement was key to this project and we established an advisory group with national and international members (academics, non-academics, NGOs (non-government organisations)) with expertise in ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) law, human rights and cybersecurity. We held three meetings over the period of a year which provided valuable support throughout the project and influenced direction and decision making.

One of the main aims of the project was to explore new regulation around moderation in open platforms as well as encrypted communications (UK Online Safety Bill, EU Digital Services Act). New regulatory initiatives have been implemented or proposed to impose general monitoring obligations for providers of encrypted communications services (USA EARN IT Act 2022, UK Online Safety Bill, European Commission proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse). Some of them as client- side scanning have been severely criticised as capable to suppress online speech and criminalise legal actions. We presented our research and discussed the impact of new regulation on human rights in the Cyberspace Conference 2022 (Words behind walls. Content moderation issues in the context of EdE applications).

Our work investigating E2EE has enabled us to gather research evidence useful to policy calls within this landscape and publish papers focused on the new regulation, moderation practices and the new trend of end to end encrypted communications. In addition online misogyny – only recently recognised as an online harm, is area social media giants are failing to address and we would like to explore this topic further. Another area we are keen to investigate concerns the methodological challenges that arise when researching online communities. It can be difficult to recruit communities who choose to be private online as they may be mistrustful of researchers. Furthermore, researchers can face responsibility challenges when investigating online groups involved in activities that are socially divisive or potentially illegal, and also need to take care over their own safety when engaging with such communities.

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