Commissioned research and researchers’ integrity

A few days ago, a report “Abuse of Power: Coordinated Online Harassment of Finnish Government Ministers” was published by NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. It confirmed what many of us active in social media were suspecting was happening. A lot of ‘criticism’ directed at the Finnish government mainly run by women “were abusive and gendered, sexist, and misogynistic.”

The report has received a lot of attention in Finland, both in traditional and in social media. Those who ‘agreed’ with the results were often saying “Can’t you understand this abuse is really happening when even NATO says so.” Those who did not ‘agree’ with the results often questioned the independence of NATO’s researchers and whether the research was commissioned by the current government.

According to the Government’s officials, the research was not commissioned; it was only suggested by the previous government under the name “Inauthentic Coordinated Networks in Finnish Information Environment.” When NATO researchers failed to find any coordinated network, they instead decided to switch their attention to hate speech in Finnish social media. Apparently, they consulted the current government about their new intentions and got a positive feedback.

Several questions arise here. First, what were the hypotheses of the original study and what exactly did the researchers fail to find? Was this reported in detail as the current report? I was not able to find an answer to these questions – that doesn’t mean such a report had not been published. If it indeed was not published, this would represent what we call in science “a publication bias”, more specifically in this case it is called file-drawer effect.

Has this research been commissioned or not? If the report was not commissioned, why did the NATO researchers consult with the current government about their changed intentions? If I would like now to replicate this study, should I contact the government and ask them whether that is OK for them? Or, if I would like now to study whether the leader of the Finns Party writes racist tweets, should I contact him or the government and ask whether it is OK that I do this research?

Are these researchers free to choose a research topic and report everything they find or don’t find? There is a statement in the report “This publication does not represent the opinions or policies of NATO or NATO StratCom COE.” However, on their webpage it says, ”Strategic communications are an integral part of our efforts to achieve the Alliance’s political and military objectives”. One doesn’t have to be especially intelligent to notice that scientific goals and research ethics do not have to be always in agreement with “the Alliance’s political and military objectives”. I was half joking, half being serious when I wrote on Twitter that this could be a part of NATO’s strategic plan to appeal to those demographic and political groups in Finland who largely oppose that Finland joins NATO.

Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t question the results of this report. Furthermore, it is not my thing to discuss whether Finland should join NATO or not, after all I am not even a Finnish citizen. However, I am rather fascinated by the fact that many of those who welcomed the findings of this report often question integrity of researchers when they don’t agree with the results of their work.

If you don’t believe me, check what many cycling activists write on Twitter about researchers whose work says something good about bicycle helmets. Have a look at what they write about Liikenneturva, who according to them, works for the car industry and because of that they cannot be trusted. Now, even researchers from NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence are to be trusted because this time their research is in line with our own experiences, attitudes, and values.

The main reason of my writing about this topic is related to my own field of study, traffic safety. Most of the traffic safety research in Finland is commissioned by state organizations. Commissioned projects limit the creativity and freedom of researchers, because research topics and research questions are often pre-defined. This centralized and targeted funding can also place a burden on researchers to deliver what they believe is expected from them. And if a (university) researcher’s career / funding depends on the state, this could be a dilemma for them. Now, imagine what kind of dilemma researchers employed by NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence might face on a daily basis.

Written by Igor Radun, PhD, Docent, Department of Psychology and Logopedics, University of Helsinki, Finland
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Photo: Joel Grandell

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