Can we all put down the Twitter pitchforks?

Social media has given us the ability to send and receive information instantly at a huge scale and at all times of the day and night. I know Twitter in particular, makes me a better fundraiser because it connects me to examples of best practice, innovation, sector news and the support of my fellow fundraisers / charity workers.

But there’s a downside to a medium which has such immediacy, and which seems to encourage an atmosphere in which snap judgments are the norm and expressing a speedy opinion, is fairly standard.

I was particularly sad about the way in which the debate around data protection and privacy concerns in relation to the Samaritans Radar Twitter app played out on Twitter. For those who are unaware of this story, the app was designed to enable users to monitor the accounts of their friends for distressing messages.  It would then be possible for people to contact friends and offer support or check they were ok.

Today, Samaritans confirmed that they were closing down the app permanently, having initially suspended it following the concerns raised at launch. Now I don’t claim that those raising issues in this regard didn’t have a valid point to make, nor do I feel that people should not be able to express reasonably held views. But I do have an issue with the mob mentality which I discerned in some of the commentary on Twitter. It felt as though some people had sensed an opportunity to point out a problem and grabbed it with both hands.

I would like to have seen more awareness of the importance of reaching out to people – often young people who use social media to express their innermost feelings – in times of acute emotional distress. I would like to have seen a greater acknowledgement of the intent behind the programme and perhaps even some weighing of the issues between the right to data privacy and the potential to save a life.  I think the need for new ways of offering support for people online (especially young people) is ever more pressing now that Beat Bullying has ceased operations.

It’s not an isolated incident either. Salvation Army South Africa’s quick response to #TheDress meme garnered mainly plaudits, but also some criticism from those who felt that the way that the advert and artwork was designed, with some people feeling that it unintentionally reinforced patriarchal views of women. Again, the criticism was well-argued and was a perfectly valid view, but was the core purpose of the advert to raise awareness of domestic violence not a more important message?

Clearly charities need to take care in the social media arena, and the fact that they are doing good work should not give them a ‘get out of jail free’ card when they make errors of judgment, but I think the stronger attacks could sometimes be toned down a little.

Do you agree or am I being over-sensitive on behalf of charities?






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4 Responses to Can we all put down the Twitter pitchforks?

  1. Adrian Short says:

    The issue of tone and tone policing came up often during the Samaritans Radar campaign. This blog post explains the latter well.

    Generally, and in the light of that argument, are charities entitled to a civil response no matter what they do?

    And specifically with Samaritans Radar, do you think they would have shut down the app had it purely been a “civil” and ultimately ignorable campaign? Because the alternative, which was on the cards anyway, was ending up in court. That would have been a much worse outcome for the Samaritans than what actually happened.

    • joelvoysey says:

      Hi Adrian, It’s a good point and I suppose I am arguing not so much for tone policing, but for a greater understanding and empathy with the aims of the campaigns. The intent of the Radar App and the Salvation Army does seem to me to be important and, far from seeking to oppress the constituencies these organisations are seeking to support, they are trying to address serious issues. The withdrawal of the Radar App is, I suspect, an acknowledgement on the part of Samaritans management, that they should have sought more / better advice on the DP implications, but I felt that the criticism of the organisation was overly harsh.

  2. The strongest attacks on #samaritansradar came, as I recall, from voices in the mental health community. Those expressing privacy and data protection concerns (who of course might also belong to the first group) were, as I experienced it, merely doing that.

    You say “It felt as though some people had sensed an opportunity to point out a problem and grabbed it with both hands”, but it was a big problem, and did encapsulate some extremely complex and troubling issues regarding use and analysis of social media data. If people grabbed an opportunity they did so in my view with the very best of intentions.

    And the thing is, Samaritans could have avoided this: they could have properly consulted, and they could have done what they now appear to have done, and (with the help of the Information Commissioner’s Office) assessed the legality and privacy impact. I have little doubt that if they had done so, they would have shelved it earlier.

    • joelvoysey says:

      Hi Jon, It’s clearly a complex issue and I’m sure Samaritans will have learnt from the experience. I really hope the strong response hasn’t put them off from trying to find new ways to communicate with people in desperate emotional states and to provide timely support to them. If the incident has provided a framework for them to review new activity and perhaps to consult more widely in the development stages, this episode could still be a good thing for them. My concern is that Senior Management and Trustees may be less inclined to try something new or to put their heads above the parapet having noted the response and that would be a real shame. Charities are probably too risk averse as it is…

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