Friday, 27 March 2009

The devil in Social Networking

My blog entries about the use of social media / social networking in local government have been positive and have strongly endorsed the use of these tools. It would be remiss of me not to touch upon some of the dangers because, like all very powerful tools, put in the wrong hands or used in the wrong way, they can be very damaging.

Trapped in the Matrix

On December 23rd 2008 I wrote about the movie "The Matrix" as an introduction to my blog on virtual worlds. The movie trilogy's virtual world is far from "good" from the human point of view since most of humankind is trapped in a physical world ruled by a master artificial intelligence, whilst their consciousnesses are fooled into believing they live in a kind of real world utopia.

An article in "Information Age" published in February 2009 focussed on this same idea. In this case the (unnamed) author had been subject to being "locked in FaceBook hell, assaulted by malicious misinformation". Her FaceBook account had been broken into by parties unknown, and the she was locked out. The account was then manipulated in a manner that led to friends being insulted and the owner's own persona radically libelled. But as she could not access her account, she had no means of redress - and she found to her horror that it was almost impossible to contact FaceBook employees to put things right. It took two days, but that was more than long enough for a great deal of reputation damage to be done.

Anti-social networks

And as I drove to work  on 24th March 2009, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme had an item on a 13 year old girl who had been bullied and hounded within FaceBook, Bebo, etc. to the point where she had felt suicidal. A new web site to tackle such "cyber-bullying" has been set up, and although less than a month old has already received 23,000 visits (according to BBC). An article on the BBC News web site reports that 16% of teachers have been cyber-bullied and over 50% of teachers know of children who have been bullied in this way. The Cyber Mentors site also gives statistics from a Beat Bullying survey - 50% of those surveyed said they had been cyber-bullied and 25% had not told anyone about it.

Engage we must - but with caution

Why must we engage? In my previous posts I've tried to give examples of successful models and how they can be applied. And if you haven't been convinced by my blog entries so far, have a look at the "Did You Know?" videos on YouTube. (There are several in the series - this is as good as any although it's USA based and about a year old now).

So the use of these tools must come with a health warning. Councils must therefore be cautious and ensure that we do not fall foul of problems such as these two examples illustrate (and they are just the tip of an iceberg). This means devoting resource to the online presences we create - for example a Council FaceBook account should be checked at least once a day (preferably more than this) - just as much to delete damaging posts as to develop our presence and respond.

What both of these bad examples remind us is that human society is a mix of the good and the bad, and that the bad can have a disproportionately large influence. Just because there are vandals and predators out there in cyber land doesn't mean that we should avoid going there. Indeed because they are there we must go there too, to bring good practice to bear, to help protect the innocent; and because this is where the innocent go, we must be there too. In my next post I'll describe an example of how one Police Authority is doing precisely that in a truly inspiring way.

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