After the tragic suicide of Hannah Smith, we are all left asking huge questions about social media and the dark side of the Internet.
I was heartened when I saw David Cameron was making a statement about Ask.Fm and cyber-bullying. But as I listened to his words I wanted to throw my coffee mug out of the window and yell despairing noises into the ether.
When I started my PhD in Internet ethics people laughed and said it would have no practical use in society. I’m heartened to know it does. The dystopic realities I’ve been pondering in dusty libraries have erupted and we’re all racing to figure out where the heck a map exists to navigate this brave new world. We need great leadership, hence my excitement as I sat down to listen to David Cameron’s statement.
Cameron made the following points today [watch the video on the Telegraph site]:
“My heart goes out to the family…this is an absolutely appalling case.”
Good so far; we would all totally agree on this, which is why what comes next matters so very much. We have to get this right as a nation, to prevent future tragedies.
“First of all, the people that operate these websites have got to step up the to plate and show some responsibility in the way they run these websites.”
Yes and no. In saying this, Cameron places the blame (a) on the owners of social networks; “the people that operate”, then (b) on the technology itself; “these websites”. In placing blame in these two directions, he fails to identify the true culprit. WE are the problem; the social networks are simply a tool. We get to choose how we use these tools in our hands.
I won’t say it’s a totally neutral tool, as all mediums shape their message/usage. But just like former technological break-throughs like the invention of the printing press, or the gun, or the car, they can be used for great good or great destruction. To point the finger at the creators of these sites or at the sites themselves is to fail to point to the real problem – you and me. We are choosing to use these sites to harass, bully and destroy lives. Unless we realise we are the problem, no amount of policing or shaming certain networks will fix it.
What we need is an ethical revolution within society. I’m not peddling a religious message here, rather I believe that we need to revive the ancient Greek and Roman concept of the Virtues. We need to aspire to courage, honesty, bravery and love once again. Unless we can adopt a set of what I call ‘Virtual Virtues’ (virtues that work in this digital age), we will continue to take this new tool and run rampant in our destructive behaviours. The Internet could become heavily policed and restricted – and this is potentially another way to ‘fix’ it. But the deeper problem is in our need for Virtual Virtues; a societal ethic of goodness and love.
As has famously been said “with great power comes great responsibility”; as the tools in our hands gain greater weight and power, the onus on us to rise to the occasion with the commitment to ethics increases. If we misuse it we will probably lose it. Cyber-freedoms will be massively curbed in future if we can’t prove ourselves ethically adept enough to handle them well.
What does it mean to Cameron for those “operating these websites” to take “responsibility”? Yes, I’m in favour of proper reporting procedures and panic buttons. But from the semi-hysteria I’ve encountered among people this week, many are saying that it is all the fault of the technology. Many also have said to me that anonymity itself should be banned on social networks. Anonymity is, again, the wrong place to point the blame. Anonymity can do much good; politically oppressed nations find a voice, like the Arab Spring; those in domestic abuse find a place to ask safe questions; shy personalities find confidence to say positive things. Blaming anonymity is the wrong target – it is a tool in our hands that can be used for good or for harm. The site operators, the sites themselves, and the anonymity they allow are are not the true problem; we are.
“Second point is, just because someone does something online it doesn’t mean they are above the law…If you incite violence, it is breaking the law – whether that’s online or offline.”
Yes, it’s good news that at last threats made on the Internet are taken seriously. They weren’t when I lived in the States some years ago and was drowning in them. So it’s great that Cameron is taking threats made on social media as a serious matter. However, his use of “online” and “offline” feels too cut and dry to me. It’s what I’ve been recently been talking about a lot; the ‘broken binary’ of online and offline.
These delineations are increasingly blurry and will become so much so that the ‘on/off’ dualism we use now will be laughable in a few years time. Our technology will become a bigger and bigger part of us, in terms of dependency – and potentially physiology – that to speak of this ‘on/offline’ as a clear divide will not make sense. So I get twitchy when people make a very clear delineation between them as if they were two separate spheres.
Where does one start and the other end? I’m online, but yet I’m a very physical person sitting at the screen of my computer. I download all my messages and read them when I’m offline. My smartphone is always connected. When Google Glass hits the streets will offline already feel like a redundant concept for many of us? If we venture into Transhumanism (my PhD topic) and embed technology within us, we will never truly be ‘offline’ again. Yes Cameron was talking about the legalities of crime here. But in every context, leadership in this digital age needs to emphasise that online/offline is not dualistic but nuanced; almost inseparable and both equally real in their own way. The binary is already broken and Cameron speaking as if they are two very separate entities is unhelpful, especially in the context of what he said next…
“Also there’s something all of us can do as parents and as users of the Internet and that is not use some of these vile sites. Boycott them; don’t go there. Don’t join them. We need to do that as well”.
This was the awful crescendo for me (when the coffee mug almost became a projectile ). In the interviews I’ve given this week on Sky and BBC News, one point I’m keen to make is that switching off our gadgets doesn’t fix anything. We need long-term solutions as the problems we face are very weighty. A knee-jerk reaction for parents, naturally deeply worried by the Ask.FM story, is to say to their kids “switch that thing off; I don’t want you on there”.
Firstly, we know that banning kids from sites only makes them want to go on there more. I doubt whether many teens are wanting to boycott these sites even after such a tragedy, as social networking is more important to young people than pre-Internet-era adults will ever grasp. It’s their social lifeline; it matters as much as seeing friends face to face; it’s as real as going to parties. To be cut off from these networks, to a teen today, would be like being placed on the moon in solitary confinement.
I’d urge parents not to follow Cameron’s advice; rather than reaching for the ‘broken binary’ and hitting the ‘off’ button on your child or teen’s gadgets, think about the fact we need a long term solution here. We need to remain ON the networks and ON the gadgets and learn healthy boundaries. Just as I wrote about Twitter Silence being an odd way to deal with trolling, boycotting and walking away from things that are difficult is not going to help us solve this.
Parents, I’d urge you to allow your kids to stay on these sites as they are an important way of life for your them. Your children are “digital natives” meaning that they have grown up with digital communication as the norm. To them, it’s like breathing. A pre-Internet era life perspective would say “close that laptop and go play in the garden with your real friends”. This statement is broken on so many levels; implying that relationships online are less real; that the physical trumps the virtual, and that what happens online is trivial.
I’d encourage parents to engage MORE with these sites, not less. To become digitally literate for the sake of your kids you need to learn the networks they like, the lingo and the protocols. Don’t breathe down their necks in a way that stifles them online, but DO enter that world. At the meal table, as casually as you’d ask “how’s things at school?” make sure to ask “so how are things on Facebook/Ask.FM/Instagram”. Treat it like a real space. What happens in those spaces REALLY matter to our teens. And that could not be clearer than in the case of Hannah Smith. Disengaging is not the advice Cameron should be giving now. Boycotting and/or blaming the technology and it’s owners gets us nowhere long-term.
We need to avoid the ‘Them vs Us’ of social network owners and work with them to improve their safety – as with Del Harvey listening to the feedback from us all on Twitter and adapting the reporting process. Rather than making them the scapegoat, or the technology, or the anonymity, we need to call for an ethical revolution of virtual virtues. And we need to stay switched ON in order to attempt that goal.
if interested in this topic, I discussed cyber-bullying and the arguments I make in this post in two TV interviews earlier this week: