Do we accept that online criticism is our new normal?
In a new paper published from the University of York (Law), Harmful Comments on Social Media, author Kathryn Chick Explains why social media has become a breeding ground for malicious, abusive, and offensive communications.
Chick argues that current law offered by the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) and its guidelines does not strike the right balance between freedom of expression and protection from harm. Meaning, “too much protection has been afforded to freedom of expression at the risk of many harmful communications going unchallenged.”
The paper acknowledges that freedom of expression benefits both individuals and society at large, encouraging self-development, improving knowledge and education and allowing individuals to express their personalities. Chick rightly states that “freedom of expression is both a necessary and desirable component of living in a democratic society.”
However, there is one disclaimer.
“These benefits derived from freedom of expression should not be associated with low-level comments posted online with the intention of harm to others. An online comment should not be protected if it has harmed another simply because it is true.” The paper recommends that the CPS should shift the balance in favour of protecting victims from harm online, namely anonymity, the physical detachment of the online world, the size of the audience, and the instant and permanent nature of online posting. Chick concludes, “Legal remedies should be available to those harmed online – logging off is not a panacea.”
I will return to this paper for my doctoral studies as it is a topic I have become fascinated with…
Logging off is not a panacea…
As one would expect, none of us can move around in the physical world without somebody else disagreeing with us. However, how this disagreement is conducted face to face compared to online is another discussion, with human behaviours – cyberpsychology – becoming lost when people log into social media.
During the last two months, I have slowly been getting through the epic research published by Dr Mary Aitken, who has published a phenomenal book called The Cyber Effect: the more I dig deeper into her insights and our use of social media, the more fearful I am for our future generations without proper protection. All of our young people now access social media, broadly unsolicited. When did it become acceptable for us to ignore the dark side of social media in return for us all profiting from its benefits?
During the last 10 to 15 years in my life as a teacher, I have developed an online presence (organically) and have written in great depth about my journey from teacher to influencer, highlighting three fateful moments in my life which have directed me to today. Of course, I’m no angel when it comes to expressing an opinion about the news or politics, or when someone criticises the teaching profession, I often come out of the closet! Expressing an opinion to a wide audience does bring its consequences. Many want to hear or read my opinion, some people pay for it, and most of the world couldn’t care less. But as my audience has increased, I have also had to think twice about what comments I make and when and when not to share an opinion – and where this may cause harm to others. I have also had to learn how to log off to manage my mental health, how to block, mute, filter and reduce 5,000+ notifications each month.
A new normal?
On the flip side, I wonder if this online critique is our new-normal: That using social media means we have to accept harmful online comments? Chick cites that with “88% of people in Great Britain are online, anyone has the potential to be harmed on social media, not just public figures.” Today, we see vitriol across all of social media, particular in our British press (described as freedom of speech) and this becomes rife on Twitter in particular, which I am concluding is a forum for the middle-class bourgeois to gain some form of political control. Before the weekend, I logged out after being involved in a Twitter spat which generated some commentary. I spent most of the day responding to people by text message, hoping to explain my point and why I said what I said, but the battle was lost as people from all sides of the globe decided to pick up on a single comment about workload, or attack me personally (which is a sad indictment of some of our teaching professionals), rather than seek clarification about what I was saying and why.
Five or so years ago I discovered that sharing video messages offers more context to other human beings (and tends to fend off criticism) because others can see and hear you, as well as read non-verbal data. It is also very rare for me to delete anything on social media, but I took the decision at the end of the day to delete all commentary, then posted an apology, then deleted this as further criticism flooded in! You simply do not see this same behaviour (between teachers) on Instagram or Linkedin. To prove this point, I decided to conduct an experiment and post the exact same comments on LinkedIn the next day. Not a squeak! I chose to log out for 36 hours…
I am reminded of the Chick above: “Logging off is not a panacea” for people to manage their mental health or criticisms.
Trust the wisdom of others…
The discussion about schools reopening is even more vicious, particular within the media, given that the state of the nation is anxious (and rightly so) as everyone’s health is at risk and our teachers could be forced to return to work – despite the scientific evidence – and risk their careers and lives! It is an online topic I have tried to keep away from, despite my influence, yet it is just as hard to step back from supporting the profession further. Something I have been doing online, particularly with workload, since I started this blog in 2008. To be accused of driving teacher workload was a difficult concept to accept…
Our government’s approach to the reopening of schools can never be a one-size approach, yet all England’s headteachers are being forced between a ‘rock and a hard place’, navigating statutory requirements and guidance – most of which is endless commentary riddled with mistakes or ambiguity. Our headteachers are being required to make life or death decisions, with no guidance and no scientific evidence to suggest why our schools must resume to normal service. What we need is our government to empower school leaders to make the decisions that empower our headteachers in their communities – these are the experts within the system and the key people our parents trust.
I know that expressing an opinion on the decisions our schools are making is a fine line to balance, particularly at a time of national crisis, even if my intentions are to support and challenge from within the sector. Like you, I want to ensure children are not discriminated against and that we raise the profile of the teaching profession. We all need to tread carefully, including me.
When the profession stops arguing with one another, we will have won.