The (digital) traces we leave behind

Photo credit: BBC

By Mette Wichmand

The technological development has in recent years given us more and more opportunities to access, create and store data about ourselves and others. We communicate online with family, friends, acquaintances and people we do not know at all. We follow people, companies and organizations as well as hashtags online. We share thoughts, opinions and ideas in cyberspace together with our whereabouts, selfies and photos of others, and the things we do and buy. We register our sleep, steps, meals and temperature. And while we do all of that – and more – we leave digital traces behind – knowingly or not.

Together, these traces create an unprecedented amount of social data. Data that forms a goldmine for researchers in social science – like myself and my colleagues, and probably also you, dear reader, as you are reading this blog.

It is easy to become euphoric when thinking of the amount of data that the technologies are generating and giving us access to. Think about the insights we can create on how viruses travel and spread across boarders or how student socialize and learn online. Knowledge that can help us build better health services and stronger educational systems. But the opportunities come with ethical challenges. Because is the data actually ours to collect, store, share and analyse in the name of research, just because it exists and is accessible? Or does the data belong to the individuals who created it and should they be consulted before we use it? 

I have no clear answer to this question, but I think it a crucial one. Therefore I have been looking around for help and guidance.

I began my search by looking into the infamous GDPR, the extensive piece of legislation that was adopted in April 2016 by the European Council and Parliament. This piece of legislation seems to work well for private companies, but is not very helpful for me as a researcher looking for ethics. I am no legal expert, but from reading people who are, I understand that research occupies a privileged position within the Regulation: “Organizations that process personal data for research purposes may avoid restrictions on secondary processing and on processing sensitive categories of data (Article 6(4); Recital 50). As long as they implement appropriate safeguards, these organizations also may override a data subject’s right to object to processing and to seek the erasure of personal data (Article 89). Additionally, the GDPR may permit organizations to process personal data for research purposes without the data subject’s consent (Article 6(1)(f); Recitals 47, 157)” (see:

My own conclusion: Good to know what the rules are, but not the right place to look for ethical guidance.

So, looking for ethics, my next stop, was the homepage of the Danish ‘Council of Data Ethics’ (Dataetisk Råd). The council was established in May 2019 by the government with the stated task of supporting ‘a responsible and sustainable use of data in the private and the public sector’ (see: It would seem to be an obvious place to find some guidelines but turned out to be another dead-end. On the homepage, the council writes that it is essential that the data ethical challenges of the public sector are addressed, but at this point in time they have only prepared recommendations directed at the private sector.  

Finding no help with the Council of Data Ethics made me think that I might need to change my search. Instead of looking for ethical guidelines concerned with the use of personal digital data in social research, perhaps I should be looking for guidelines developed for health and medical researchers as this group has been dealing with ethical issues connected to working with sensitive and personally identifiable data for years. Maybe there was something to learn from our colleagues?

This led me to the website of the Danish Ethical Council, who prepared and published a statement in 2015 on research involving digital health data and biological material in Denmark (see: ( The statement is partly based on a background paper discussing the ethical aspects (see:

In the following, I will extract some central points of the statement and discuss their relevance and how they might help inform a similar discussion in the field of social science.

Personal ownership and consent

First of all, the publications underline that medical science is based on a 400 years old liberal tradition where every person is believed to have ownership of their own body and all information connected to it – in a medical context meaning tissue, bioproducts and genetic information et cetera.

I think this opens up an interesting discussion in relation to the data we create about ourselves online. Could and should we understand the data that is produced online in line with data derived from our physical body and as such place it under the banner of personal ownership?

If we were to accept the idea that every individual owns the data they produce online, the next step according to the Ethic Council would be for researchers to ask for ‘informed consent’ from the data owners when we want to use their data. In doing so, we should enable the data owners to decide not only if the data can be collected and by whom – but also which purposes it can be used for.

Having to ask for consent might seem inarguable when you want to drain human blood or take a biopsy from person’s liver, but when the data is accessible and can be collected with a webspider that no one sees or feel it might become easy to think of the data as finders keepers?   

Anonymity, privacy and confidentiality

The ethical imperative behind having to ask for consent from the data owners is the idea that people have the right to autonomy and self-determination. Meaning that people should be free to decide whether their personal data is used in ways that are aligned with their personal values and beliefs. If there is no alignment it could be claimed that the autonomy of a person has been violated. In health research we might agree to our data being used to do research on a rare eye disease but not for anything connected to euthanasia. I think the same considerations could be pertinent in relation to social online data, where it would be possible to imagine cases where the focus of the research is not aligned with the values of the individuals producing the digital social data used in the study. On could imagine a study focused on political differences between men and women, that a person who does not subscribe to the idea of a binary biological gender might take affront to and therefore would not wish to contribute their data to.

Further, the Ethic Council states in its report that it is often assumed unproblematic to use anonymized personal data in research. But if one applies the idea of autonomy and self-determination, it is no longer possible to think of it as unproblematic, as a person’s personal values and believes can still be violated even though the data can’t be traced back to an individual level. Furthermore, there is always a risk that the data is not thoroughly anonymized and it can therefore be argued that it should be the individual data owners themselves who decide if they find it sound to provide their data to a research project.

Solidarity and public interest

There is no doubt when reading the reports from the Ethical Council that they are concerned about people’s data and their right to self-determination, anonymity and privacy and that they advocate that we as researcher ask for consent before collecting and using personally identifiable data. With that being said, the Ethical Council points to the importance of enabling researchers to build knowledge that is of societal value – even though this can be undesirable for the individual. The argument goes that in order to be able to heal and help people, health researchers need the ability to access personal information. A cure for cancer can’t be created on basis of theoretical hypotheses only, but demands blood, sweat and tissue from many individuals. Therefore, we as individuals must show solidarity and put the collective interest before our own – even when we pay with our private data. I believe that the same could be argued for social research. Access to data – including sensitive personal data – impacts the knowledge we are able to build. The key question is when the knowledge is of such an interest to the public that we can justify using the data. Is it when data helps us make informed decisions on how to diversify the way we teach in order to meet different learning styles? Or is it when we use data to predict who will pass and fail a study and base our admissions of students on such predictions? I am afraid that there is no simple, clear-cut answers to such questions.         

What now?

I started out by asking if online social data is ours to collect, store, share and analyse in the name of research just because it exists and is accessible? Or if it belongs to the individuals who created it and who we need to consult before we can create, collect and use the data? 

Neither the legislative texts of the GDPR, nor the reports from the Ethical Council, give me any strict guidelines, but I do think that they call for a larger awareness of and discussion in the social science research community on how we should deal with public and private data and how we make sure to consider and deeply reflect on whether what we do as researchers is of such a nature and interest to the public that we can justify collecting and analyzing sensitive personal data regardless of the relative ease with which we can access it online.   

We can make rules and laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) but in the end the matter also has to do with trust. Does the public trust us researchers and the institutions we represent to such a degree that they are willing to grant us access to their cells and internal organs as well as their (secret) desires, habits, ideas and opinions expressed online? Earning, having and keeping that trust – now and in the future – depends on how we think about and handle sensitive personal data today. It is a discussion we have to engage in. Together. So, what are your thoughts?   

Mette Wichmand is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Roskilde University

BEHIND THE STUDY OF JUNK NEWS: Collaborative project with the investigative team at Politiken

By Jannie Møller Hartley

Misinformation has been a theme in recent years in connection with several democratic elections in our neighboring countries. In particular, the notion of ‘fake news’ with fictitious and factually incorrect stories has received much publicity. However, experience from countries such as the UK, Germany and Sweden had already shown that so-called ‘junk news’ is more widespread that actual misinformation from foreign actors or trolls interested in corrupting the election results. Therefore, Politiken set out to investigate the phenomenon in Denmark prior to the parliamentary elections in the spring of 2019. The newspaper contacted Digital Media Lab in the initial research for this story, as a number of questions came up during the research.

First of all, how could previous research carried out during elections in Sweden be used in a Danish context?

Researchers at Oxford University had already investigated the phenomenon. They defined ‘junk news’ as ‘propaganda and ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial political news’. Five criteria were used to measure the amount of junk news during the election. Oxford examined the Swedish election in the fall of 2018 and concluded that for every three normal articles shared on Twitter, a ‘junk news’ article was shared.

The Oxford researchers were not investigating the general election in Denmark. Politiken therefore set up an expert panel with the help of the three journalism programs in Denmark. I agreed to be part of the panel, together with Peter Bro, head of the Center for Journalism at the University of Southern Denmark, Vibeke Borberg, lawyer and associate professor of media law from the Danish School of Media and Journalism.

New questions came up and simply employing the framework from the Oxford study proved an uneasy fit.

The panel spent quite some time discussing the definition of ‘junk news’ and after reading several of Oxford’s reports we concluded that the Oxford criteria were deficient. Instead, the panel set out 20 criteria for how we would assess what ‘junk news’ is. We decided that it was important to evaluate 1) The platform 2) the producers and 3) the product.

In terms of platform, we developed criteria such as ‘who owns the medium?’ And ‘is the business model transparent?’

As far as producers are concerned, the panel decided to include criteria such as ‘does the media correctly declare article genres, such as news and attitude?’ And ‘Is the media willing to correct mistakes, and how does it make the readers aware of corrections?’

As far as the product was concerned, the panel wanted to include criteria such as ‘does the media follow the contradictory principle – that the accused in an article has the right to see and respond to criticism?’. Another criterion, although a difficult one, was: ‘Is the information communicated by the media outlet misleading?’

The panel chose to focus on new digital media. The criterion for becoming part of the study was for the media site to refer to themselves as ‘media’, who did ‘journalism’ or ‘news’, or had a set-up reminiscent of news media. Party political media and actual blogs were cut off from the study as they were considered to be a category for themselves. It would later prove to be somewhat difficult to distinguish between news sites and blogs for example.

Against this background, Politiken located 15 media sites that the expert panel could examine. Articles from the 15 sites were collected during the same study period, 25. February- 4. March, whenever possible. For the most productive sites, Politiken stripped away reader letters, Ritzau articles, debate posts and daily reports from the police, so that the expert panel would only review editorial production.

The prevalence of junk media on social media was investigated with a so-called Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolset (TCAT). This tool is available from Digital Media Lab at Roskilde University. (You can read more about TCAT here).

So, what did we end up with?  How much was junk and was junk news really a problem?

The expert panel reviewed a total of 237 articles from 15 media sites. The panel concluded that nine of the media produced journalism of such poor quality that they could be defined as junk news sites. Those nine media were: 24News, NewSpeak, People’s Newspaper, The Short Newspaper, Today’s, News24, Digital News / Hug, and 24/7.

Six media were assessed by the expert panel to NOT be junk media. They were: 180 Degrees, NewsBreak, Document, Solidarity, Updated and Responses. The experts’ reasons differed depending on the media. Some provided content of a quality that was satisfactory. Other media were considered by the panel to be blogs or social media, not news media. Therefore, they were not relevant to the investigation, the panel believed.

The research concluded, that several Danish digital media were spreading misinformation and hidden advertising on the internet. Their articles look like real journalism, but contain misleading information to such a degree that it can be seen as a democratic problem.

As part of the expert group, I warned against these sites as they are advertising and propaganda disguised as news journalism. It can be a democratic problem if these media manage to influence the Danes’ attitude toward certain political issues.

By doing this analysis, Politiken was able to show that doubtful articles from so-called junk media not only set the agenda on social media. They are also involved in the parliamentary processes, where politicians question the Ministers based on misleading information.

It is common to refer to specific stories in the news when asking a question to a minister, and Politiken found that 69 questions during a period of two years were based on stories published by sites characterized as junk news. This led to a broader discussion of which media sites to refer to and the responsibility of ministers and politicians to check the information of the sites they refer to, before citing them.

The project was nominated for an investigate price for the innovative method by the Danish Federation of Investigative Journalism (FUJ), 2019.

The articles can be found here (In Danish though)

The Sleepy President – Ib Gulbrandsen on “Trumps Tweets”

Recently the chief rat of the DigitalMediaLab was featured as an expert on the DR2 series “Trumps Tweets”. Having analysed and catalogued every tweet written by Trump in the first 100 days of his presidency, Ib describes the daily rhythm of the president and how it can be seen as influencing his Twitter habits.

You can watch the full episode here:

Nationalism without borders? Transnational networks among right-wing online news sites

by Eva Mayerhöffer

Just in time for the European Parliament Election 2019, a somewhat notorious figure made a public re-appearance. Steve Bannon, the co-founder of alt-right news site Breitbart News and former chief strategist for the Trump administration, embarked on a mission to foster a global right-wing populist movement ( Europe was supposed to be the first step.

The Movement, as it was called, never really took off – that it should require an American to ‘save’ Europe was too much to swallow for European nationalists after all. Yet, while Steve Bannon may have failed on the political scene, chances are he has fostered the global alt-right movement on a whole other level. In the past couple of years, many countries around the globe have seen the emergence of online news media that position themselves as a counterforce to a perceived liberal mainstream in media and politics. Many of these right-wing alternative (or ‘alt-right’) online news media have not least been inspired by Bannon’s brainchild Breitbart News.

Is it maybe through these news sites that we can see a transnational alt-right movement emerging? And how transnationally oriented are these news sites in the first place? Can we find evidence for an emerging network of right-wing online news sites across countries? We tried to answer these questions by focusing on alternative news sites from six different countries – the US, the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria. With the US and Sweden, the selection includes two countries that are frequently named as ‘exporters’ of alt-right ideology, as well as three country pairs of (cultural) neighbors. That right-wing news sites from precisely these countries should entertain at least some relations with each other across borders is thus not unlikely. 

As most of these news sites are online native and rely heavily on social media as a dissemination platform, digital methods naturally played an important part in data collection and analysis. In assessing the transnational networking potential of these sites, we focused on two aspects in particular: 1) We looked at whether they re-tweeted posts of or mentioned other right-wing news sites on Twitter. To do so, we harvested mention and re-tweet activity of in total 65 sites through DMI-TCAT-user, hosted by RUC’s Digital Media Lab ( 2) We also studied whether they hyperlinked to other right-wing news sites in article content published on their websites. As alternative news sites are not regularly included in media archives such as Infomedia or Lexis Nexis, we collected article hyperlinks through the platform, which collects online news stories through the RSS feed of online media sources. To scrape all hyperlinks embedded in these articles, we used the R package ‘rvest’.

Why not Facebook? As many of these sites use Facebook almost exclusively as a platform to disseminate their website article content, collecting website hyperlinks through extracting data from Facebook’s API would indeed have been a viable alternative. Not least because it would provide the possibility to include audience engagement patterns in the analysis, as well. Unfortunately, apps to do so, e.g. DMI’s Netvizz Application, are now no longer allowed on Facebook.

But back to the question of transnational networks among right-wing news sites. To understand their linking behavior better, we have to quickly consider why right-wing news sites may be inclined to refer to other alternative news sites in the first place. Very broadly, we can distinguish between two strategies. On the one hand, right-wing news sites may refer to each other based on a movement logic. This means that they predominantly perceive themselves as part of a larger right-wing movement beyond the conservative mainstream that includes actors and organizations from the populist right-wing, ‘alt-right’, far right and extreme right spectrum. Hyperlinks, mentions and re-tweets serve here to cement political alliances, to build and reinforce a group identity, as well as to increase the visibility and exaggerate the importance of issues relevant to the movement. On the other hand, alt-right news sites may link to other sites based on a professional logic. By hyperlinking to additional material in articles, the sites can seek to heighten the article’s concision and depth through background information. So-called citational links to the original producer of news or other materials demonstrate facticity and strengthen thereby the credibility of an article and the entire website. The higher the societal status and overall credibility of the linked source, the higher the chances that the linking practice enhances one’s own reputation.

But why link to right-wing news sites from abroad? For one, it has been argued that transnational networking is particularly relevant when the national alternative digital news environment is relatively underdeveloped, as it is e.g. the case in Denmark. Secondly, including sources from abroad widens the spectrum of news stories of partisan news value. A typical news story featured on these sites is e.g. a criminal offense committed by immigrants. Yet, even though these sites are working hard to suggest otherwise, these offenses do not come in infinite numbers. And where are additional stories easier to find than on alt-right news sites from other countries? Finally, alt-right news sites may perceive themselves in competition with each other on the national level, but less so on the transnational level, and thus be more prone to refer to each other here.

Over the course of a 3-month period, we managed to extract more than 700,000 relevant hyperlinks (that is excluding links to e.g. advertisement or social media platforms) from articles published by the 65 right-wing alternative websites. Roughly 24,000 of those were connections between these 65 sites. This low share is not surprising- even if their linking pattern was strictly based on a movement logic, right-wing news sites would of course also link to other right-wing partisan actors (parties, movements, bloggers, etc.) and to right-wing online news sites from other than the six countries. If we additionally consider the professional logic, right-wing news sites will moreover include citational and background links to established actors and organizations, including legacy media

What is maybe more surprising is that less than 1,000 of these connections were transnational. At first sight, the transnational outlook of these sites thus appears minimal. However, whether or not right-wing news sites linked to their national or international peers was also highly country-dependent. In the US (pink), the country with the by far most elaborate ‘alt-right’ digital news infrastructure, 99,9% of all article links to other right-wing news sites were national. In Sweden (blue) and Germany (purple), the majority of links was likewise national; in Austria (green), the distribution was rather even. In Denmark (beige) and the UK (yellow), where the right-wing digital news infrastructure is relatively weak, literally all links were transnational.


Hyperlinks in article websites (primary network), based on 65 news sites and 23,806 connections. Graph created in R. Layout: Fruchterman-Reingold. Node size represents out-degree. Edge color remains the same color as the country group if an edge runs between two nodes belonging to the same country. Edge color turns gray when an edge occurs between two nodes from different countries.

Many of the transnational links are between neighboring countries: German and Austrian sites link to each other, while Danish sites entertain a strong connection to Swedish sites. In general, however, it is US based right-wing news media, and here not least Breitbart News (brt.) that serve as a hub in the transnational ecosystem of right-wing alternative news displayed in the graph.

Yet, our right-wing news sites are also connected across boarders in another way. If we extend the view beyond direct links between right-wing online news sites, we can see that our right-wing news sites form part of a transnational network held together by that fact that many of them refer to the same third-party sites. Interestingly enough, the majority of them are established legacy media outlets like the New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, Swedish Aftonbladet, German BILD or Israeli Haaretz. In a case study based on the Danish right-wing sites, we found that these links to established media from abroad are only rarely used to delegitimize this source, but much more often serve to enhance the facticity and credibility of a given news story (“see, even the New York Times writes it”).

In contrast to website content, direct links between right-wing news sites based on mentions and re-tweets matter more on Twitter. Where the logic seemed more professional for website article hyperlinking, Twitter indeed seems to provide a better platform for movement-based networking. But even on Twitter, transnational mentions and re-tweets of legacy media sources carry quite some weight.

Did we find evidence for a transnational alt-right movement spearheaded by alternative media? – not so much. What did we find then? We did uncover interesting patterns in how linking patterns vary between Twitter (movement logic!) and website (professional logic!) communication, as well as between countries with established and weak digital right-wing news infrastructures. We found a rather central position of Breitbart and a few other US based alt-right media in what could eventually amount to a transnational network of right-wing alternative media. And not least a rather surprising reliance on legacy media as a journalistic source for a type of media that defines itself to work against the so-called media mainstream.

This blog entry has been written by lab member Eva Mayerhöffer and is based on her research conducted in collaboration with the research group ‘Digitalisation and the Transnational Public Sphere’, Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, Berlin (