Fixing online society

The Open University’s Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks recently gave a speech to the European Association for Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU). His speech included this passage about online communication:

“We live in a world where fake news and the negative role of social media sometimes determine public policy. I suspect that quite a large number of us in this room were naturally early techno-optimists. But as the polarising, degrading and demeaning aspects of extreme opinions and abusive content online undermine the cohesion of societies I believe that there is a natural swing towards techno-pessimism.
But the overwhelming shift towards a digital world cannot be held back just because we have some reservations and we should not despair. We need to be as committed to creating a constructive information society in the digital world”.

DM-I-wfX0AE0MMf copyAt the same time, an ugly incident unfolded around Cambridge University student Lola Olufemi. Briefly, the Daily Telegraph newspaper misreported a story about changes to the University’s English curriculum in such a way that it led to Olufemi’s social media accounts and email being “flooded with racist and sexist abuse”. Cambridge University publicly defended their student and condemned the social media harassment, and the following day the Telegraph issued a correction to their story. The Lola Olufemi episode served to illustrate some of the problems that Horrocks was describing. So, how might they be countered by “creating a constructive information society in the digital world”?

In a previous post, I identified five broad categories of risks when using social media, namely the risks of:
1. Exposure, criticism and polarisation
2. Online abuse
3. Being in conflict with your role or institution
4. Reduced privacy and security
5. It consuming too much time

As many of these risks are the result of people’s online behaviour, universities can play a particular role in reducing them, alongside the internet and social media industries, the traditional media, politicians and legislators. The public’s dissatisfaction with fake news and increasing mistrust of the internet and social media industries is making our participation in this movement increasingly pressing. Legislators are also lining up to intervene, either benignly, such as through the UK government’s Digital Skills and Inclusion Policy, or more assertively in response to the increasing calls for social media regulation.

In my view, universities can participate in this movement in at least three ways: as educators, as researchers, and as employers.

  • As educators, we can integrate digital literacy across the curriculum, as proposed by JISC
  • As researchers, we can provide the evidence to inform a constructive information society, as commendably demonstrated by Ryerson’s Social Media Lab and Oxford’s Internet Institute.
  • As employers – we can negotiate policies that encourage individual staff (and students) to role-model appropriate online behaviours, whilst protecting them from the risks described above.

A number of NGOs and nonprofits are pioneering ways to accomplish this (including those in this twitter list), and working alongside them may help remind the public of some of the value that universities can contribute to society.

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2 thoughts on “Fixing online society”

  1. Clearly educational establishments can take the lead in how to behave online, but how do we engage with countering the fake news we encounter? Often groups spring up on social media populated by vocal members who will shout down anyone disagreeing with their narrative. Further challenging the views in those groups will inevitably result in either being silenced or a “Gish Gallop” of links with demands every single one is debunked. Evidence from robust studies is discounted as being funded by some shady global conspiracy.

    The members of these echo chambers invariably filter what they use as sources to provide information they find confirms their own biases. These can be incredibly difficult places to try and engage in debate and the blocking of responses gives a biased view of the discussion taking place.

    These groups are growing in popularity and I’m sure they gain converts; a number of conspiracies that were very much underground ideas are starting to be quite prominent online. It does sometimes feel that there is a concerted effort being applied to discredit education.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that the situation which Peter describes is increasing in prevalence. Academics seeking to correct misinformation using their professional expertise of critically reviewing knowledge claims and sourcing robust evidence, and their deep knowledge of a particular field, are being attacked as part of the ‘corrupt manipulative establishment’ problem. Conspiracy theory mentality is rife. It seems that the more coherent the counter to ‘fake news’ the more criticism those doing the countering attract. Academics with an active online presence are therefore increasingly vulnerable to abuse from a section of the public that vilifies professionalism and champions the homegrown, the anecdotal, the contrarian. The election of Trump was grounded in this same kind of anti-professionalism. Hilary Clinton could actually have been any professional politician. The Trump-electing public just didn’t want a professional politician. They didn’t trust them.

      So where does this put us as academics operating in public online spaces? In an uncomfortable, frustrating position, with an increasing need to hone our skills in handling online conflict and to know when to step back even though principles may be at stake. In a position where we need the skills and knowledge to be able to differentiate between (a) untargeted vitriol, directed at us as representative of a wider establishment (uncomfortable, but not necessarily unsafe, though this can draw us into situations that are at the limits of our coping strategies and could therefore affect our reputations); and (b) trolling, hatred and abuse that is directed at us personally, and which represents a real threat to our safety and to the safety of those close to us.

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