A Digital Bermuda Triangle: The Perils of Doing Ethnography on Darknet Drug Markets

A Digital Bermuda Triangle: The Perils of Doing Ethnography on Darknet Drug Markets

anthro{dendum} welcomes guest blogger Alexia Maddox, contributing the first post in the Private Messages from the Field series edited by Crystal Abidin and Gabriele de Seta.

A Digital Bermuda Triangle: The Perils of Doing Ethnography on Darknet Drug Markets
by Alexia Maddox

Media reports sensationalize the dark web as a seedy digital location where drugs, guns, hitmen and child pornography circulate through eBay-style marketplaces that are only accessible to your hacker types. Here, elusive fringe behaviors proliferate in plain sight, with identities hidden through encryption technologies and secretive user cultures. In 2013, I began collaborating on a digital ethnography of the most popular darknet drug market, Silk Road. The social impacts of this kind of choice-driven, highly visible yet anonymous, peer-to-peer drug market were unknown. The research was led by Dr. Monica Barratt, a social scientist at the Drug Policy Modelling Program, part of Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Together, we considered the Silk Road community to be a great place to start studying the impacts of choice-driven drug availability upon people’s drug use trajectories. What we found was so much more than that.

In this post, I’ll cover what it is like to work in online spaces that disappear overnight, and discuss the levels of visibility people adopt in these disrupted and disruptive spaces. The question of ‘how to’ do ethnographic research in a contentious and dynamic environment such as Silk Road led me to formulate the notions of ‘site instability’ and of ‘contentious visibility’. Moving away from sensationalizing fringe activities on digital media, I found a nuanced and internet-oriented notion of healthcare emerging among Silk Road users, which I describe here as systemic ‘selfcare’.

As a researcher, I am drawn to digital spaces where people are using and creating innovations in networked technologies to engineer – both socially and computationally – a more permissive reality. I see these digital frontiers as collective and constructed resistance spaces that act as cultural laboratories through which alternative futures are experienced. Not all of these socio-technical experiments gain traction and uptake, yet they lay down the technologies, ideas and experiences from which we learn.

Whenever I present this research project, a common response that I receive is one of intellectual curiosity, yet mixed with personal rejection and distancing. Working with a community with strong liberal values, a requirement of anonymity and an underlying libertarian ethos all surrounding a drug market operating in the darknet can be polarizing and confronting, and there were times where it was for me as well. However, I began my research with a process of social sensitization and non-judgement by understanding that there are different ways to approach structural problems, social marginalization and culturally stigmatized prohibitions in our societies.

By nature, this community’s ways of establishing ‘the self’ in the environment was going to be combative, and their perspectives towards personal and public health and wellbeing were going to challenge centralized regulatory practices and perspectives. This empathetic connection and space for social difference that I drew on to assist my research practice were the strengths of an ethnographic approach. Its weakness, however, is in dealing with anonymous online populations and field sites that disappear. Both of these aspects were at play in the research, and yet the mobility and real-time connection with community that ethnography emphasizes ended up being the greatest assets to completing this work, as we will see.

Silk Road screenshot
The Silk Road darknet marketplace (Screenshot by the author)

Our research into the social implication of cryptomarkets took place between 2013 and 2015, and focused on people who had purchased drugs on Silk Road, a cryptomarket founded by Dread Pirate Roberts in 2011. Cryptomarkets are e-commerce websites that operate in the ‘dark web’, commonly referred to as darknet markets (DNMs). The dark web, as an anonymous online space, has allowed drug sales to become highly visible and enacted through peer-to-peer market structures that allow vendors and purchasers to gain and lose reputation and business deals through recommendation and rating systems. Associated forums gather together people who wish to discuss drug-related issues and harm-reduction strategies with people across the world, and reviewing the quality of the drugs they’ve purchased through trip reports and vendor insights. From October 2013 to June 2014, I conducted my ethnographic fieldwork by engaging online with the digital community surrounding Silk Road that was active in these forums.

The dark web can be thought of as a ‘digital Bermuda Triangle’. It is a dynamic space with websites that regularly change their Internet Protocol (IP) address (the unique identifier of each device connected to the internet) and often appear or disappear overnight. When Monica and I launched our study, Silk Road had successfully avoided ongoing law-enforcement efforts to shut it down through vigilant anonymization practices and encryption technologies. This successful resistance to state regulation lent the website a sense of stability that made it seem impenetrable. Yet, just as we launched the data collection component of the research (i.e., me entering into active recruitment and research engagement in the Silk Road forums), the FBI suddenly shut the site down.

FBI site seizure notice
FBI site seizure notice (Screenshot by the author)

Other than the sinking feeling of having put all my research eggs in one digital basket, I was there to observe the outpouring of grief and loss that the community felt in having their shared and constructed space abruptly taken offline. They knew that other drug markets would quickly take its place, but they mourned the loss of a collective culture that offered them a safe space in a highly contentious and risky environment. This mobility of people and practices across online environments taught me a key lesson as a digital ethnographer. This lesson was to not get attached to any one ‘site’ as the location of community, and to be prepared for some form of ‘site instability’ during the course of fieldwork. Therefore, each site should be thought of as a vessel traversing the digital Bermuda Triangle, potentially disappearing at any moment, and resilient strategies are needed for researching site-specific populations that are accustomed to dealing with this sort of turbulent and unstable online environment.

As I attempted to raise the visibility of our research project and conduct interviews among the community, I encountered several ethical conundrums. A central concern of the study, for both myself and Silk Road participants, was how personal visibility was to be negotiated in order to avoid vulnerability in this highly contentious social context – an issue I identify as ‘contentious visibility’. When posting about our research project in the Silk Road forums and associated online spaces, the striking dichotomy in communication styles explicitly revealed the local climate of contention and exposed an ethos through which community members gained traction (and satisfaction) from their capacity to attack one another, while masking themselves through posturing and belligerence.

In contrast to the Silk Road community members, I was highly visible and identifiable across online spaces and through my professional identity, working according to ‘best practices’ in trying to engage and recruit people into what may have been considered a risky endeavor for participants. Responses to the recruitment post ranged from endorsing the scope and security practices that the research was founded on to questioning both the credibility and impact of our work. Dialogue ranged from well written to opinionated and straight-out bullying, with the thread ending after a death threat. The contentious visibility that was evident in this dialogue was engendered by the playful and purposive splitting of online identities and the movement of users between multiple sites, which can make forum banning and blocking practices ineffective. These disruptive, fragmented and evasive practices are also characteristic of the distributed attachment that drives identity creation (both individual and communal) in cryptomarket spaces.

Why does this matter? Well, understanding contentious visibility in the unstable sites of cryptomarkets contributes to removing the veil from how people view, for example, their own health practices and the role of drug choice and consumption in relation to wellbeing. The healthcare and legislative systems in many countries are set to regulate drug consumption, positioning people as patients whose health conditions are subject to, and defined by, medical practitioners. During my fieldwork, it became obvious that the feisty Silk Road forum participants had a vastly different perspective on this issue.

From our research we found that there was indeed a contrast between their understanding and experiences of healthcare versus their choice-driven preferences for pathways to wellbeing, which I label ‘selfcare’. For some participants, the notion of healthcare was a constrictive regulatory system within which health practitioners produce authoritative diagnoses and hold the capacity to prescribe a suitable treatment and define the appropriate medications. This centralized system of authoritative and prescribed health support was, by its very nature, not resonating with the skepticism and sense of personal sovereignty that characterized the narratives and perspectives of many within the comminity surrounding Silk Road. Building on notions of power, self-directed health choices, and structural inhibition within the existing system of healthcare, one participant argued that responsibility regarding health and medication should be solely in the hands of the purchaser.

This ideation of self-directed care, including self-diagnosis and self-medication, is somewhat different from conceptualizations of online selfcare. Online selfcare is commonly seen as online information provision (such as that found in the Mayo Clinic website) and social support spaces. For the Silk Road community, however, online selfcare moved beyond information access and support, and included personal diagnosis and drug/medication purchasing through the cryptomarket. The debate surrounding the wisdom of this perspective is no doubt an ongoing one; however, the ‘flat’ structure of cryptomarkets, allowing them to retail illicit drugs and prescription drugs without distinction, does indeed reframe the power dynamics inherent to contemporary healthcare systems.

We have been able to draw many insights from this research and I am very grateful for the time, interest and patience that many members of this community showed me as I learnt the technical ropes and gained an understanding of the people involved and their online environment. In this post, I’ve highlighted how a disappearing field site, contentious visibility and an alternative notion of selfcare emerged from these interactions. These insights have the capacity to inform future digital ethnographic practice and to provide more nuanced insights into the online populations operating in digital fringes. As researchers entering this sort of digital Bermuda Triangle, we have the opportunity to observe ephemeral social experiments in alternative futures, but we also need to ensure that our research vessels are ‘seaworthy’, that we are open to the unexpected, and prepared with a resilient strategy for engaging contentious populations.

Cover image: Author unknown (2015), retrieved from online source.

Dr Alexia Maddox, Lecturer in Communication at the Deakin University School of Communication and Creative Arts, is a digital sociologist interested in the social impacts of technology, including social media and digital networked technologies. She studies digital frontiers and communities with stigmatized populations using technology to create and connect in emerging spaces online. Her recent book, ‘Research Methods and Global Online Communities: A case study’ (Routledge, 2015) presents an approach to mixed-methods research and is written to support postgraduate and early career researchers exploring these evolving social spaces through a myriad of techniques.