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Dossiers RFSIC à paraître

N°25 | Questioning ethics in digital contexts from the perspective of information and communication sciences (SIC1)

Coordination : GER GENIC (Groupe sur l'Éthique et le Numérique en Information-Communication)*
  • 1 We henceforth use the French acronym SIC for “information and communication sciences”.

* including the following GENIC group members : Jean-Claude Domenget and Carsten Wilhelm, group coordinators, as well as Camille Alloing, Béa Arruabarrena, Christine Barats, Orélie Desfriches Doria, Gérald Kembellec, Mariannig Le Béchec, Franck Renucci, Marta Severo and Samuel Szoniecky

Created two years ago, the Group on Ethics and the Digital in Information-Communication research (GENIC) is now an accredited working group of the French national scientific association for information and communication science (Société Française des Sciences de l’Information et de la Communication - SFSIC)2. The group promotes work on questions of ethics affecting all information-communication processes, in a context marked by the growing presence of digital technologies, through the analysis of phenomena, practices, social interactions. Indeed, all fields of research are touched by ethical questions (we refer the reader to the volume Dynamics of Information-Communication Research edited by the Conference of French Research Centers in Information-communication Sciences3), take for instance the research fields related to the media, to legal, communicational, or organizational issues, or the role and the place of technologies in methods of research and scientific publication, in particular through the design of algorithms and data processing.

  • 4 Balicco Laurence, Broudoux Evelyne, Chartron Ghislaine, Clavier Viviane et Paillart Isabelle (dir.) (...)

Beyond analyzing research practice, work in information-communication ethics should also take into account the logics of actors and their productions embedded in discursive, socio-economic, cultural, political and regulatory realities of digital and communication practices4. Faced with a generalization of social controversies, whether related to the health crisis, the environmental crisis, public health issues, etc. it appears essential today that information-communication researchers participate in public debates around ethics and prepare those on the questions to come.

This call therefore intends to broadly question ethics from the vantage point of information communication sciences (SIC), in the current digital context. Indeed, even though ethical questions and issues do not find their origin in digital technology, this special issue invites submissions problematizing the role of “the digital”. Three fundamental characteristics can guide expected proposals :

Ethics through the prism of information and communication sciences. The ethical questions triggered by the use of digital technologies pervade the whole of society. In recent years, many organizations (including the French National Digital Ethics Committee) have started to question digital ethics based on the respect for the human person. As such, ethics is not simply a necessity but it also stems from a desire to regulate digital practices and to develop a critical stance and a dialogue aimed at questioning fundamental principles in a different way. These aspects in particular call for an analysis in the field of SIC. Indeed, what is a digital ethics? What ethical questions does digital technology raise from the point of view of information and human communication (considering anthropological, sociological, etc. approaches)?

  • 5 Zacklad Manuel et Rouvroy Antoinette, « Enjeux éthiques situés de l’IA », XXIIème congrès de la SFS (...)
  • 6 Dewey John, « What does pragmatism mean by practical ? », The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and (...)

Ethics as situated practice. Ethics is fundamentally neither of legal nature, nor simply an expertise. It is a form of reasoning on concrete problematic situations, which is expressed in action — beyond legal or regulatory frameworks — when contradictory logics of values are at work. According to the situated ethics approach5, ethics is first of all a questioning exercised with reference to a system of values ​​such as social justice, responsibility, etc. This approach, based on pragmatism6, promotes ethics that do not separate values ​​from facts insofar as it is the value itself, constructed by experience, that is constitutive of social norms and facts. Encouraging field research and experiments, this call aims to stimulate ethical questioning of research practice, professional practice, digital uses and the various forms that ethics takes in society. Indeed, if ethics precedes the law, where does it come from? How is it construed, and how does it come to be a standard, or even reified in regulations, as in the case of GDPR?

  • 7 Ess Charles, Digital Media Ethics, Polity, 2013.

Ethics from an international perspective. Despite being a universal principle, ethics and its implementation are dependent on situated, localized contexts, which are also culturally and socially diverse when observed from an international vantage point7. We this invite proposals to compare the ethical politics of scientific communities internationally, primarily in the field of communication, media and digital studies. We also wish to solicit contributions from other continents and in particular those from countries and regions lesser or little known in the context of these questions. What issues are highlighted by the documents and the practices established? How do they contribute to the effort of researchers to situate or even legitimize themselves in relation to social demands, themselves largely dependent on a given socio-historical context, or even on democratic and socio-economic models of the research? By what mechanisms does the research community organize its deliberations and decision-making? To what extent are collective ethical approaches interwoven in variable political configurations and power issues, in particular by providing an additional tool for the administration of research professions, which in turn might trigger resistance?

Complementing these three fundamental aspects, this call is structured around four complementary areas, which are not exclusive:

Questioning ethics in information and communication sciences : new objects, new issues?

This topic area concerns issues around research questions linked to digital technology. The digitization of society has led to a fundamental change in our relations to information and communication, thus effecting social transformations at all levels. The new objects produced by digital technology (big data, data, algorithms, platforms, etc.), irrigating many if not all information-communication practices, have generated innovations and uses making it possible to create, to put in relation and to share new knowledge. Yet, they also reveal new phenomena such as algorithmic biases, the automation of processes with artificial intelligence, or the production of fake news. Indeed, in a digital context, many ethical questions update and transform reflections on issues such as the regulation of access, production and circulation of knowledge, but also the construction of the modalities of debate and deliberation which put in tension the desire to disseminate knowledge and media standards in the context of platformization (see, for example the controversy surrounding the suspension of ex-President Trump's accounts on Facebook and Twitter). Under these conditions, how can we access the "black boxes" of digital interfaces to bring to light the socio-technical, cultural, economic and political logics at work in the regulation of information-communicational practices, in the production of algorithms and content and their circulation ? What role can the law play in these contexts ? What legitimacy do mainstream media have in order to take on the role of a content regulator? What rules do media editors apply to control information by fact checking? How can they support the controversies necessary for the emergence of consensus? What editorial procedures and what paradigms of quantification govern media publications ? Similarly, as the Cambridge Analytica case showed, how do content designers instrumentalize content to generate traffic? This question can also be applied to the field of scientific publications, to the formats and visibility associated with it, as shown by the controversies on science communication during the Corona pandemic.

  • 8 Evgeny Morozov, To save everything, click here, Public Affairs, 2014; French edition : Pour tout ré (...)

More broadly in contemporary societies, digital devices have created unprecedented possibilities for capturing and tracking data, triggering legal issues of personal data protection, but also anthropological consequences, in particular the effects on individual and collective attention, behavior and decision making, putting the protection of the human person at stake. What impact does automation have on decision making? What roles do applications such as Stop Covid, presented as a solution to the pandemic, but also apprehended as exemplary for a certain solutionism8, play for the social acceptability of public policies?

Ethical issues often arise in the face of dilemmas, borderline cases, which question its limits, principles and scope. How does this questioning fit into the digital practices of researchers, professionals and citizens? What forms does it take: deontology, codes of ethics, including in the development of legal translations of its objects? Faced with algorithmic logic and new digital devices and applications, what are the contributions of our field (SIC) to renew ethical reflections in the construction of research issues and the production of knowledge about information-communication practices?

Ethics and transformation of professional practices in information-communication related professions

The object of this second topic area is to focalize on professional practices in different sectors of activity related to information and communication in order to analyze their transformations and to evaluate the impact of ethical reflexivity on those transformations. There are in fact a number of principles, rules, ethical questions that practitioners ask themselves during the exercise of their profession, which when controversial, might be included in codes, charters, etc., drawn up as guidelines, as supervision and recognition tools for professional practices. The transformations of professions are often accompanied by a generalization of tools, of digital communication devices, in turn taken into account in regulations, such as the GDPR. These transformations, as mediations of professional practices by algorithms or even AI, directly question professional ethics. To analyze this tension, we wish to solicit case studies relating to professional ethics, to reflect on the conditions for exercising professions, as well as to analyze their regulatory framework.

Is an ethical regulation of professional practices indeed possible? Faced with the hegemony and potential abuses of GAFAM or other web giants, their capacity for the storage and processing of data, new functions or even new professions have appeared within companies requiring an ethical dimension. In this context, what is the real role, what are the strategies and tactics of the data controller, the data protection officer, the data analyst, the community manager, the traffic manager, etc. ? What are the ethical perimeters of all these emerging professions? Is there really a place for ethics in this data market economy? The attempts to moralize and regulate social mediation platforms, are they, or can they become efficient? In more traditional information professions - communication, human resources, marketing, etc. charters and codes of ethics have been drawn up to regulate professional practices. What assessment can we make of the production of these charters and ethical codes? Is it possible to think ethics specific to the information-communication related professions?

Focusing more specifically on data, which ethical approaches can be identified in the processes of data mediation and regulation by algorithms? How to guard against biases and “social filtering” of algorithms? How can we prevent online behavior tracking from leading to the profiling of individuals, without even including the intentionality of their digital practices? Likewise, it is now (theoretically) possible to predict or even provoke Internet users' appetite for ideals and products by observing their behavior online; large influencer and digital marketing companies are not shying away from it. Can algorithms handle subtle traits of human communication such as irony or sarcasm when creating or relaying content on social media? More broadly still, what are the interactions from an ethical point of view between the professional world and regulations (in particular the GDPR)? Since the raised awareness about data leaks and the commercial power at play, we are witnessing a - literal - lifting of Europe's shield (privacy shield) against the American “pure players” and the giants of consumer computing. How are the new concerns about information rights and the value of privacy reflected?

Research ethics by experience: epistemology, methodology, data, corpus, observables

Research ethics has a rich legal framework, however research on and with digital technology renews epistemological and methodological questions, in particular with regard to ethical issues, whether in the choice of theoretical approaches, methods of collecting, processing and viewing data, as well as their conservation, anonymization and openness (long-term storage, open access, open data, etc.).

  • 9 Latzko-Toth Guillaume et Pastinelli Madeleine, « Par-delà la dichotomie public-privé : la mise en v (...)

This topic area proposes to examine the experience and the questions and choices of researchers before, during and after the implementation of the research protocol. Far from an idealization, it questions the practical solutions, the constraints, the difficulties, the limits inherent in the confrontation with the field. Thus, in the preparation of research, the choice of theories, methods, postures and definition of the protocol requires taking into account ethical issues, whether the research is funded or not. For example, when collecting data, ethical issues can lead to making choices that can reorient research if the question of consent is correctly put forward9.

Epistemologies and methods can be construed as opportunities and risks on the ethical level, beyond the existing regulatory texts. Are there theoretical paradigms and methods that are more easily mobilized in an approach that prioritizes ethics? What choices are made beforehand in the definition and selection of research data? What methods are used in the constitution of corpora, in the case of data collection on the web or online observation for example? What are the protocols and modalities for informing and collecting consent from participants? How are interventional and participatory research methods (participatory sciences, deliberative online debate systems, etc.) taken into account in SIC? What are the modalities of processing, analysis and restitution of results? How do the processes of peer validation of research implement ethical rules aimed at producing convincing results? What competent authorities have been set up for ethical regulation (ethics committee, charter of ethics, guide for research)? From a legal point of view, what are the methodological contributions of the RGPD and the Data Protection Officer (DPO), particularly with the implementation of a data management plan (DMP)? What are the solutions for data storage and retention? These questions are all the more important as the approval of an ethics committee is becoming a condition for obtaining research funding in an increasing number of countries. The risk : substituting the protection of the public participating in research for that of the researchers and research institutions.

What are the frictions that question the ethics of research in a reflective analysis of scientific publication? Don't the new digital dissemination tools run the risk of conditioning scientific production in order to meet the injunctions of visibility borrowed from marketing? How can we reconcile the professional strategies of researchers with the performance injunctions of the market economy? How are the metrics of research evaluations constructed? Do they introduce ethical biases? Indeed, to validate the results of their research, researchers are inclined to adopt a perspective of distance in order to have their results validated by the community of peers. How can we take into account the reception by the public (object of the research) of this distancing (of validating results by peers) inherent to the research process? Does publication also require the involvement of the public concerned by the research?

Ethics and literacy: curricula and teaching practices

Information-communication systems require new skills of analysis and decryption, constituting the basis of digital literacy. Indeed, several recent controversies have revealed how “deep fake” technologies produce very convincing information asking for a renewal of information evaluation skills. Likewise, with regard to the manipulation of individuals, social media and their media resonances have far-reaching sociological, political, personal and epistemological consequences. Could the individual dimension of the relationship between ethics and reflective practice benefit from opening up to cognitive approaches and to taking into account social dimensions, particularly in the regulatory process. This reflection also relates to the individualized and situated teaching practices of higher education and university staff aiming to transmit a critical posture through mastering the tools for manipulating information and opinions. What ethical posture could be taken into account in communicational and professional practices and among young researchers?

Indeed, we also invite reflections on the transformation of ethical questioning in organized and structured teaching contexts (training of PhD candidates, methodological workshops, etc.). To this end, contributions on concrete teaching cases will be welcome. How is this training structured when it is aimed at research ethics? What structures exist and what are their effects? How to implement learning ethics through sensitive and concrete examples ? How do the increasingly numerous critical approaches (critical digital studies, critical literacy, critical privacy studies, empowerment, etc.) question education and teaching practice? What critical approaches of dominant educational practices exist ? Which approaches of emancipation and empowerment? What are their purposes? How to go beyond the vision of ethics as a moral judgment? What capacity to individually question the compatibility between practices and values? How to combine hierarchical, organizational and disciplinary injunctions with the individual freedom of the teacher? How to take into account the commons? What methods of adherence / rejection / revision of ethical principles? By whom, and how can these ethical principles specific to collectives emerge? What are the effects of an absence of ethics?

These are many of the questions that this issue of the RFSIC wishes to see debated.

Submission process

Proposals are accepted in English and French.

Submission of a complete text (Times, size 12 and single-spaced, 35 000 characters, spaces and bibliography included) in English or French on November 3, 2021 to jcdomenget@gmail.com and carsten.wilhelm@uha.fr; complete with a title, an abstract, and 3 to 5 keywords, all in French and English or even in a third language if suitable.

The file will be sent in two copies to jcdomenget@gmail.com and carsten.wilhelm@uha.fr:

  • 1 file in .docx format including the name, affiliation and email as well as a short bio of the author(s),

1 file in .pdf format completely anonymized before midnight (CST) October 30, 2021.

This complete article will undergo a double-blind peer review process mobilizing the members of the scientific committee.

For more information, including formatting standards, we invite you to consult the website of the Revue Française des Sciences de l'Information et de la communication https://journals.openedition.org/rfsic/

Timeline

  • May 17, 2021: Launch of the call

  • November 3, 2021: Full papers submitted

  • January 30, 2022: Assessment and return to authors for final decision

  • March 30, 2022: Authors send camera ready papers for publication

  • May 2022: publication of the issue

Notes

1 We henceforth use the French acronym SIC for “information and communication sciences”.

2 https://www.sfsic.org/la-sfsic/groupes-detudes-et-de-recherche/

3 « Dynamiques des recherches en sciences de l'information et de la communication », http://cpdirsic.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/dyresic-web-08-2019.pdf

4 Balicco Laurence, Broudoux Evelyne, Chartron Ghislaine, Clavier Viviane et Paillart Isabelle (dir.), L’éthique en contexte info-communicationnel numérique. Déontologie, régulation, algorithme, espace public. Actes du colloque « Document numérique et société », Echirolles-Grenoble, 2018, Louvain-la-Neuve, De Boeck Supérieur, 2018, 158p.

5 Zacklad Manuel et Rouvroy Antoinette, « Enjeux éthiques situés de l’IA », XXIIème congrès de la SFSIC, 2021.

6 Dewey John, « What does pragmatism mean by practical ? », The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 1908, 5(4), 85–99.

Dewey John, Ethics. The later works of John Dewey, 1925–1953. 7. Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press, 1985 [1932]

7 Ess Charles, Digital Media Ethics, Polity, 2013.

8 Evgeny Morozov, To save everything, click here, Public Affairs, 2014; French edition : Pour tout résoudre, cliquez ici, Editions fyp, 2014.

9 Latzko-Toth Guillaume et Pastinelli Madeleine, « Par-delà la dichotomie public-privé : la mise en visibilité des pratiques numériques et ses enjeux éthiques », tic&société, vol.7, n°2, 2013.

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