Distraction Free Reading

Screenshots of the Field: Viral Loads and the Contagious Potentials of Digital Ethnography

Over the course of the past six months, I have been actively doing fieldwork on HIV care in Turkey on Zoom. Believe it or not, for an anxious person like myself, who to this date did not approach or talk to anyone in the field without being completely soaked in sweat, I have actually been enjoying doing research online. I recognize the “anxieties, challenges, concerns, dilemmas, doubts, problems, tensions, and troubles” that arise from digital fieldwork, particularly given that the quality of being virtual does not guarantee exemption from gendered, ableist, and racialized violence. However, these issues do not exhaust the methodological possibilities and relational potentials of online research, which I address in this blog post.

My ethnographic research on Zoom so far only consisted of participating in events organized by others. Since the pandemic broke out, it was easy to observe the rapid digitalization of care—even Facebook now offers a reaction button to express “caring”—which encouraged many Turkish NGOs to organize online events to address the systemic stigma and discrimination­ (or, hivfobi). This gave way to an HIV epidemic with a 620% increase in the number of diagnoses since 2007. In a little over six months, I attended ten different meetings and interacted with over a hundred health providers, activists, and civil society workers. I will probably meet many of these people as soon as I could be in (physically) the field. In these meetings, there were also key participants whom I would have little to no chances of meeting during on-site research. And, even if I did, the chances are, I would be very nervous and mess it up.

Doing research through Zoom brings along an urgent necessity to differentiate between what is public—hence can be studied—and what appears to be public yet not meant to be consumed for research purposes. At every meeting I attended, there was a round of introductions before we began the discussion. Each time, I presented myself as a researcher (for the purposes of transparency) and as an HIV+ individual, in case they questioned the legitimacy and motives of my participation. Surprisingly, no one seemed to have any issue with my virtual presence, although I am not sure whom from those participants would be equally willing to share the same space with me when it comes to offline encounters—and it goes without saying that the same is true for me. In the sea of similitude that is the Zoom interface, where we are all reduced into the webcam size of our actual-life selves, differences seem to evaporate rather effortlessly. This includes the differences that stem from the hierarchies produced by ethnographic research practices. On Zoom, the ethnographer is just another participant, if not an icon or an avatar, without any significant possibility of holding power over others. This is not because the virtual is ontologically inferior to the actual, but because it flattens out (though it may never really erase) the hierarchy between the researcher and the interlocutors. What makes digital ethnography less likely of objectifying and exploiting other people thus is directly related to how it situates the researcher on equal grounds with everyone else in the field (Atuk 2020, forthcoming).

The unexpected joy I found in online research has a lot to do with the way people interact with each other on Zoom. I work in a field where all actors have different (and mostly conflicting) interests. Therefore, during a lot of my in-person interviews, I have been subtly interrogated to see where my loyalties lie. This has absolutely not been the case on Zoom. Maybe it is the blissful exuberance of seeing and hearing a large group of familiar and strange faces at once after what felt like an endless period of quarantine, or the growing sense of shared vulnerability and the heightened ability of empathy created by the catastrophic conditions of a global pandemic, or observing people at their own living rooms or beds which gives the illusion that we are welcome at their living spaces, but there has been a certain tone of mutual respect and intimacy in almost all Zoom events I participated. HIV activists, for whom radical care, mutual aid, and solidarity are not new concepts, were particularly good at cultivating a peaceful and amicable environment.

Zoom is not the only medium I have been using for my patchwork ethnography. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been widely used by the nongovernmental and corporate actors of HIV care in Turkey since the very beginning of the pandemic. Because field and home are the same things for me, my daily social media activity naturally involves a great deal of ethnographic observation. Although it should be easy for many anthropologists to dismiss the ethnographic potentials of what I do on social media, there have been some enlightening moments that I was able to capture (or, literally, screenshot). To give an example, let’s look closely at the global pharmaceutical giant Gilead’s Instagram account “birliktehivdengüçlüyüz” (together we are stronger than HIV), which is a promising site to explore the regimes of HIV care in Turkey. This account is dedicated to the fight against HIV stigma by sharing inspirational images, quotes, and interviews. In September 2020, Gilead published a post about the global HIV campaign, Undetectable=Untransmittable (see Figure 1). The leading HIV activists and scientists have been zealously advocating that “U=U” means zero risk of transmission. Notwithstanding, the Instagram post stated that even when one’s viral load is undetectable, “there is always some risk that cannot be ignored”. This biomedically misleading and morally laden statement, deeply rooted in the cultural fears about HIV, was immediately criticized by me and two other activists in the comments. As a result, Gilead Turkey excused itself (as corporations usually do) by revealing that they are not allowed to use the phrase “zero risk” in the context of HIV prevention and treatment according to the guidelines of the Turkish Ministry of Health—a crucial piece of information that I might not have accessed otherwise. Unfortunately, despite our demands, Gilead did not remove the post in which it continued to reinforce hivfobi and sex-negativity in the name of corporate HIV care.

A man and a woman, presumably a cis heterosexual couple, holding hands. There is a text that reads, “Tedavi alan iki HIV pozitif bireyin korunması gerekir mi?”

Figure 1: HIV prevention and treatment in Turkey solely target heterosexual couples with the hopes of protecting the sacred family and innocent babies. The text reads, “Do HIV-positive people getting treatment need to use protection during sex?”

While trying to avoid the risk of viral contagion during the pandemic, we forgot the importance of contagion as a social phenomenon that constitutes us as a community. Contagion is derived from Latin con-tangere, literally, to touch together, and we cannot ignore the socially contagious implications of ethnography, virtual or not. Platforms like Zoom unquestionably provide potentials for building relationships during times of social distancing as they help us bridge that distance without putting anyone at risk. I made a few very dear friends solely on Zoom, friends that I never had a chance to touch or feel. Not only did they connect me to the field throughout the pandemic, but they were also the most real connection I had to what I call home. Visiting their kitchens every week and hearing the sounds of crowded Istanbul streets, including peddlers’ always-impossible-to-decipher chants, undeniably helped me survive both the pandemic and the long winters of Minnesota.

Now, the question is: how do we make use of online platforms to build and maintain relationships, both ethnographic and personal, without serving the interests of software (or, malware) companies? The legitimate concerns over user security and surveillance on  Zoom have been voiced by many. Yet we have heard a lot less about how Zoom sabotaged an online talk with the Palestinian activist Leila Khaled and prevented an event on Zoom censorship. Then there is the relatively recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved a consulting firm buying millions of users’ data from Facebook. If we are to benefit from the contagious potentials of digital ethnography in the near future, we better start imagining ways of staying connected that do not require us to turn a blind eye to the collateral damages of our online activity.

Works Cited

Abidin, C., & de Seta, G. (2020). Private Messages from the Field: Confessions on Digital Ethnography and Its Discomforts. Journal of Digital Social Research, 2(1), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.33621/jdsr.v2i1.35

Atuk, T. (2020). Pathopolitics: Pathologies and Biopolitics of PrEP. Frontiers in Sociology, Medical Sociology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2020.00053

Atuk, T. (2020). Cruising in the Research Field: Queer-Feminist-Cyber Auto-ethnography. International Review of Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940844720939851

Atuk, T. (forthcoming). Academia and Hungry Ethics: From ‘Doing Ethnography’ to ‘Becoming-Sangtin’. Gender, Place, and Culture.

Eisinger, RW., Dieffenbach, CW., Fauci, AS. (2019). HIV Viral Load and Transmissibility of HIV Infection: Undetectable Equals Untransmittable. Journal of the American Medical Association. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2018.21167

Flaherty, C. (2020). Zoom Draws a Line. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/09/25/zoom-refuses-stream-university-event-featuring-member-terrorist-organization

Günel, G., Varma, S., and Watanabe, C. (2020). A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography. Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-manifesto-for-patchwork-ethnography

Lapowsky, I. (2019). How Cambridge Analytica Sparked the Great Privacy Awakening. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/cambridge-analytica-facebook-privacy-awakening/

Lee, M., & Grauer, Y. (2020). Zoom Meetings Aren’t End-to-End Encrypted, Despite Misleading Marketing. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2020/03/31/zoom-meeting-encryption/

Lytvynenko, J. (2020). Zoom Deleted Events Discussing Zoom ‘Censorship.’ BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/janelytvynenko/zoom-deleted-events-censorship

Paul, K. (2020). ‘Zoom is malware’: Why experts worry about the video conferencing platform. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/02/zoom-technology-security-coronavirus-video-conferencing

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