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.