Ongoing and planned research avenues

+ Last updated December, 2023 +

Travis’ is currently working to address three gaps in scholarship. The first concerns the use of non-consensual and manipulative persuasion techniques for promoting experimental treatments. The second regards the development of a rationale for using qualitative methods for studying scientific conversations on social media. The third concerns how a well-meaning Education Action Research (EAR) project actually increased the participatory divide: 

+ Promoting vaccines in South Africa: Consensual or non-consensual Health Science Communication? (2022+)

Travis leads the Academic Free Speech and Digital Voices (AFSDV) research theme for The Noakes Foundation (TNF). Academic free speech and dissent are pre-requisites for honest science and responsible public health communication.  Dr Piers Robinson, Travis and Dr David Bell’s manuscript Promoting Vaccines in South Africa: Consensual or Non-Consensual Health Science Communication? is currently being revised for Heliyon. It tackles a 
a blind spot in health science communication scholarship. Little is known regarding the use of non-consensual and manipulative persuasion techniques for promoting experimental treatments. Drawing upon a conceptual framework designed to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual organisation persuasive communication (OPC) their paper explores the ways in which deceptive messaging, incentivization and coercion meant that consent to take the vaccine would not have been given fully informed nor freely. The paper describes how South Africans were incentivised through financial inducements, coerced by employment policies involving mandatory testing and, in the case of pregnant women, misled by inaccurate claims regarding mRNA vaccine safety.

+ What’s the point of tweeting an unorthodox science article? (2020+)

Big Data science communication researchers have called for qualitative analysis of Twitter conversations to better explore their meaning. A scholarly gap exists regarding a rationale for such research, and only a few examples spotlight its benefits. Travis is working with Dr Pat Harpur, Dr Corrie Uys and Prof Izak van Zyl on revising their manuscript. It addresses the value of qualitative methods for studying digital conversations. This narrow focus will hopefully make their paper well-suited for a journal specialising in methodological considerations for digital communications/new media.

Upfront critical reflections on educational action research (2021+)
Little EAR has been done in African schools for facilitating students’ engagements with OCC or Connected Learning. In addition to flagging this concern, Travis’ is also revising a manuscript that spotlights how EAR inadvertently grew the participatory divide between an elite school’s arts students and their peers at other schools. This article will alert readers to a novel methodological danger; multi-site EAR research with OCC can increases the participatory divide between a wealthy school and a less well resourced one.


Over the next five years, Travis will work with co-authors to help close other research gaps. These include: describing informal academic debates on X (formerly Twitter), plus qualitative analysis challenges with Big Data. The framework for OAB routine activities theory will be refined using new examples of academic cyber harassment. A systematic literature review on academic cyberbullying research is also intended to better understand what this research has focused on. Travis has also recently submitted a research proposal regarding South African celebrities’ identities being hijacked for fake social media adverts, social networks responses and the aspects of this cybercrime that contribute to it being an intractable problem:

+ Examples of legitimate, informal, academic debates on Twitter (2020+)

Little is known about scientific article-linking for consensual and confrontational deliberation on Twitter. Travis, Dr Pat Harpur, Professors Izak van Zyl and Tim Noakes are analysing health experts’ research article sharing and related microblogging discussions. Their aim is to explore the qualities of legitimate, informal, academic debates online versus illegitimate ones, or cyber-harassment. At the same time, methods of searching for informal academic debates are undefined. Earlier literature suggests that Twitter’s communication limitations on tweets could prevent debate. By contrast, preliminary fieldwork suggests how health experts’ interactions involve workarounds for informal debate.

Overcoming qualitative analysis challenges when using quantitative data for X analysis (2020+)
At the same time, the authors’ research into Twitter (now X) conversations and related literature reviews have highlighted that there is scant coverage on how qualitative research is done with quantitative, social media data. While there are calls for such research to be done to address questions of context, meaning and agency, examples of such approaches are rare. In particular, digital humanities scholars would seem likely to benefit from case studies that described both the opportunities of the emergent ‘small data’ research process, and how to work around pitfalls. Dr Pat Harpur, Travis and Prof Izak van Zyl are working on a manuscript that will help close this gap by collating and indexing the challenges that scholars have described for qualitative analyses from quantitative data projects. Spotlighting these challenges and describing how to address them can help with addressing another major obstacle- the dearth of examples that researchers can learn from. 

+ A systematic literature review of academic cyberbullying (2020+)

Dr Pat Harpur, Prof Tim Noakes and Travis are doing an ongoing systematic literature review (SLR) of academic cyberbullying. Their review seeks to answer the question: What themes do academic cyberbullying researchers focus on and what descriptors are neglected?

While a growing body of research addresses the negative phenomenon of cyber harassment in higher education, it can be unclear which topics are most popular. Likewise, there is a gap concerning those ideas and descriptors that are important, but have been neglected. The SLR’s synthesized model addressed academic cyberbullying via five theoretically grounded themes, namely: (A) definitions, (B) personality traits, (C) behaviour patterns, (D) responses to cyberbullying and (E) academic contexts. The SLR aggregated the common descriptors found under each theme.

The authors’ initial results from the SLR’s themes and descriptors spotlights that much research exists for accurately defining cyberbullying and other forms of cyber-harassment. There is also extensive coverage for cyber aggression, cyberbullying activities, recipients’ coping practices, victimisation and its impacts. By contrast, the important topics of freedom of speech, dissenting academics, whistle-blowers and protective factors have been neglected.

+ Using the Social Media and Internet Research Lab (SMILR) at Younglings to support Postgrad scholars

TNF supported the launch of SMILR in 2021 at Younglings Africa. This lab supports software developer trainees (‘Younglings’) with the infrastructure and support needed to extract data from social media platforms and to clean it for analysis. SMILR is being used by CPUT PhD candidate Dr Pinky Motshware for researching the historic cyber harassment of black male South African celebrities on Twitter. Each experiences a life-changing outcome as a consequence of such harassment. SMILR presents a research opportunity in itself regarding how affordable data extraction for digital humanities research can be supported on a sustained basis. TNF will support SMILR’s expansion if more postgrad students need to use it.

+ Diverse examples of online academic bullying (OAB) inform refinement of its conceptual model (2022+)

Travis has been contacted by several cyberbullying victims, whose examples differ markedly from the extreme OAB example written in 2021. He plans to write-up their cases for refining the OAB model and spotlighting less complex cases that nonetheless have serious real-world implications for victims.

+ An online OAB questionnaire that is fit-for-use? 

If external funding can be found, Travis intends to work with a psychologist to rework the OABRAT questionnaire into one that is fit-for-purpose as a report tool that recipients of academic cyberbullying can use. Initial feedback suggests that the original questionnaire is too complicated, as its design reflects an extreme case.

+ Social Network Sites (SNS) responses to celebrity reports of fake endorsements in SNS adverts

Since 2019, Dr Karen Heath and Travis have been involved in combating a cybercrime that hijacked Dr Michael Mol and Prof Tim Noakes’ identities. Karen and Travis collaborated with both health experts to release educational YouTube videos that sought to warn the public of this scam. In 2021, Karen and Travis started working with Dr Adrie Stander and Dr Alize Pistidda-Scheenstra, who are doing a digital forensic investigation into this cybercrime. TNF also launched and allied social media presences to raise awareness of an ever-growing advertising scam. Despite their prevalence, these micro-frauds have yet to be prosecuted in South Africa. As there are seemingly insurmountable legal, policing, and financial hurdles to holding scammers responsible for their cybercrimes, SNS must serve as the primary bulwark for protecting users against scams. Consequently, Travis plans to research how Big Tech SNS responded to a wide range of South African celebrities’ complaints of name and image hijacking since 2014.  Beyond the reputation damage and costs to celebrities in fighting the scam, this is an important social issue. The scam’s typical victims are particularly vulnerable and can ill-afford any financial loss to scammers.

Fake celebrity endorsements on social media- an intractable cybercrime’s insurmountable challenges
Combating fake celebrity endorsements can seem a futile pursuit: despite Karen, Travis, Prof Noakes , TNF and Dr Mol’s best efforts, both Noakes and Mol appeared in a recent 2023 advert for “their new diet program”. New victims, such as Trevor Noah, Naas Botha, Francois van Coke, Juanita du Plessis and Karlien van Jaarsveld can easily waste resources combating the scam. Professor Ajayi did a 2016 legal review into the ‘challenges to enforcement of cyber-crimes laws and policy’. It describes twelve obstacles related to different legal, investigative and research aspects. For example, the cost, time, and effort incurred for investigators is often very high and unlikely to be recouped, even with a successful prosecution. Adrie, Alize, Karen and Travis are working on a manuscript informed by fieldwork that tests the strengths and weaknesses of this framework against celebrities’ reports of fighting the diet phishing scam since 2014.  Novel considerations flagged by our research can contribute to a more comprehensive cybercrime enforcement review. Such considerations might also suggest how and why some types of cybercrime may be an intractable problem. Seemingly affluent victims may have no viable route to prosecution, or redress, even via powerful authorities. This broken social situation poses a distinct challenge to authorities identifying solutions.  In response, researchers have a responsibility for improving scholarship on cybercrime’s impacts within Africa, plus addressing how realities ‘on the ground’ prevent most cybercrimes from reaching court.

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