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FIU researcher wants to keep your online group safe and private

FIU researcher wants to keep your online group safe and private

March 17, 2022 at 9:32am

Identity-based groups on social media often provide support. They can also be an easy target for harassment.

FIU Associate Professor of Psychology Asia Eaton is leading a study to explore how to best protect members of these identity-based groups — such as those for Black women in STEM, LGBTQ+ college students, recovering alcoholics and countless other groups providing support for people they might not otherwise find offline.

With a $150,000 grant from the Privacy Policy Research team at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, she will examine challenges group administrators face and what tools are currently available to safeguard members. This feedback will inform solutions or tools to prevent possible infiltration by bots, opponents and bogus members.

“Privacy is a major concern for groups where conversations are intended to be restricted to those in the groups — where you wouldn’t want others to know what you’re discussing or that you even belong to the group,” Eaton said. “If you’re a person recovering from alcoholism, you may not want people to know that. There’s this fear of getting exposed and outed.”

Social media has brought people together and also created many new avenues for harassment to happen. According to a Pew study, 40% of Americans have experienced online harassment, while 66% have witnessed it. Identity-based groups offer some protection against the chances of experiencing offensive name-calling, embarrassment, as well as more severe forms of online harassment, but privacy still remains a primary concern.

Eaton hopes to find a way to keep these spaces positive and nurturing.

Working with graduate students in her Power, Women, and Relationships (PWR) Lab, Eaton will find a variety of identity-based social media groups. They will range from groups related to gender, race, sexual identity, class, size, religion, parental status, political identity, and their intersections, as well as groups for survivors of violence, substance abuse support groups, activist groups, self-help groups and groups related to professional identity.

One of the researchers on the team who shares a social identity and Facebook group membership with a specific identity-based group will interview the administrator. Then, a subsequent survey will be sent to both administrators and group members to assess administrator and user needs, tools, experiences and perceptions.

The researchers will review the data and come up with recommendations for social media users and tech companies.

Eaton says she expects some tools will work better for some than others, depending on the degree of stigma attached to certain identity-based groups.

“There’s no doubt virtual online communications will only be more common. In some ways, we will be living our lives in these groups, so I think this is very worthwhile research to invest in,” Eaton said.

Eaton’s research explores how gender intersects with identities including race, sexual orientation, age and class to affect individuals’ access to, and experience with, social power in intimate partner relationships and in the workplace. Since 2016, Eaton has also served as Head of Research for Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), which is working to understand and end the emerging epidemic of nonconsensual porn in the U.S. Eaton first collaborated with Facebook in 2018 when she visited headquarters to present her research and find solutions to help victims of online dating abuse, cyber harassment and non-consensual pornography.