“Social media is an extension and mirror of ourselves. Don’t forget that. At both ends is eventually a person.” This tweet by Matt Esterman (@mesterman ), Australian educator, articulates beautifully within the 140 character Twitter limit the reality of social media. The trolling and bullying which dominates media headlines depicts such activities with characteristic hysteria (whether merited or not) and in such a way to suggest social media per se is a twenty first century vehicle of evil.
Certainly there have been high profile cases of extraordinary ugliness where individuals have been vilified. The unsavoury Twitter assault on Caroline Criado-Perez, feminist campaigner, threatened her safety and indeed has resulted in two prosecutions. Although traumatised by the graphic nature of the Tweets, Caroline was determined not to be cowered by it and worked closely with the Crown Prosecution to hold her attackers accountable. And Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classicist, famously was helped to unmask a troll when a family friend of the young man who happened to be a Twitter follower of Professor Beard threatened to tell his mother about his behaviour if he did not apologise!
This social media phenomenon of on-line “hate” is so profound in its impact that it is attracting serious academic research, which aims to understand and mitigate this behaviour. For example, researchers at the Schools of Social Sciences and Computer Science and Informatics at Cardiff University have joined forces with internet giants Google in a bid to help understand ‘hate speech’ on social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This project aims to study the ‘social media ecosystem’ to gain a better understanding of the complex interaction between user behaviours, communication networks and flows of information and how this can generate socially disruptive content. Dr William Housley from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences who is leading the project said:
“This is an innovative project that will generate computational social scientific insight into antagonistic online behaviour. The project will empirically explore the balance between community, social cohesion, identity and freedom of speech within digital society, economy and culture. Policy makers, commercial providers and relevant agencies require empirical data and social scientific interpretation in order to shape policy formulation, intervention and inform wider debates about the emerging contours, rights and obligations of digital citizenship in a 21st Century Democracy.”
This research is illustrative of how we, as a society, need to view social media activity through the prism of a digital world where previous contours of behaviour have moved beyond our real world experience. Currently we react to what is in effect bad behaviour of varying degrees of severity as if our regular way of ensuring justice prevails will maintain the status quo. Interestingly, Caroline Criado-Perez made the observation that, whilst two of her trollers were imprisoned, many more were still enjoying their liberty and presumably an opportunity to spew hate at others.
The CPS of course is grappling with this phenomenon on a daily basis. When should a prosecution be sought? Has social media expanded the limits of what is acceptable? What about freedom of speech? And is it actually really just an unwelcome reality that people have always had a propensity to behave hatefully and social media merely provides a digital platform to target their hate? Clearly the unintended consequences of social media offers huge challenges to our society at every level.
So what is to be done? Within the context of a school environment educators have a responsibility to ensure everyone in the school community understands their rights and obligations as a digital citizen. The moral compass must extend to the virtual world, which is very real indeed for our young people. If our young understand that social media is “a mirror and extension of ourselves” rather than an anonymous activity where normal mores do not apply, they are better placed to be responsible digital adults. After all, the digital revolution is an acknowledged game changer in so many areas. Let’s face up to arguably the most fundamental change – to our culture and society.