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.


Five risks for educators using social media

lifebelt_sml_sqUniversities are making increasing use of social media at a time when 41% of Americans have personally experienced online harassment and 62% consider it a major problem (Pew Internet 2017). In response to this troubling situation, I am investigating the risks that educators face when participating in social media, with the eventual aim of contributing to good practice guidelines for safer social media use by educators. 
To begin this investigation, I thought it would be helpful to identify the potential risks that educators might face, accepting that although some will be unique to educators, many of these risks apply equally to all social media users.

Why should educators use social media?

Lets summarise the benefits first. Pasquini (2017) makes the case well, including that on social media you can take part in a supportive peer community, learning together with them, contributing to scholarship, and hearing about events, publications and funding available. If you teach, you’ll probably find that your students spend substantial amounts of time on social media, so it’s useful to have an insight into their worlds, and if you’re a researcher, you have more chance of protecting your ideas and written work if you have an online presence displaying your publications.

For those who choose to use social media, what are the risks?

Mark Carrigan is a prominent author on the risks of social media for academics. In 2016 he identified 5 categories of risk:

  • Inactivity & reputation
  • Exposure & criticism
  • Online abuse
  • Polarisation & argument
  • Institution & employer.

Drawing on my own experience, and on wider reading, I’ve built on these categories, adding the topics of time, privacy and security, which are regularly mentioned in other literature, including by Carrigan himself.

My list is very much provisional, and a starting point for discussion on this topic. It is also highly likely to change. Indeed, as this is a snapshot-in-time, changes are inevitable; so for example, if I’d written this prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, fake news wouldn’t have been included as the phenomenon that it now is. In addition, it could be argued that some of the risks below (such as malware, spyware and viruses) are generic online computing risks that exist when using the internet for any purpose, not just when using social media. I am including them because they are almost unavoidable when using social media, although they could be minimised, especially if an individual educator operates exclusively within the ‘walled garden’ of their institution’s intranet and internal email system.

With those caveats, here are five broad categories of risk for educators using social media:

1. The risk of exposure, criticism and polarisation

Initially, it takes some confidence to publish your views online with the possibility that they may be publically questioned or criticised, particularly when it’s clear that some people, including other academics, don’t hold back when exercising their freedom of speech. The tone of online exchanges seems to be deteriorating, which Carrigan (2017) identifies as the ‘increasing toxicity of the online ecology’. When participating in social media, you might encounter:

  • Unexpected obscene or offensive content
  • Discrimination, including sexism and racism (Barlow & Awan 2016)
  • Trolling
  • Fake news.

2. The risk of online abuse

A step on from the above is deliberate and targeted hateful behaviour such as that encountered by classicist Mary Beard. Women are markedly more likely to be on the receiving end of these behaviours (Fawcett Society 2017), which include:

  • Defamation of character
  • Harassment and threats
  • Cyberbullying
  • Cyberstalking.

3. The risk of being in conflict with your role or institution

Many institutions exhibit a confusingly ambiguous and inconsistent approach to social media. They embrace it for brand promotion and student recruitment (Veletsianos 2017), and may want you to demonstrate impact & public engagement, but may be less happy with other ways in which social media may be used. For example:

  • You might clash with your institution’s ‘brand’ either deliberately, such as during trades union disputes, or inadvertently when discussing contentious topics such as politics or religion.
  • Unscrupulous employers could use your social media posts (e.g. on politics) against you in recruitment and promotion.

4. The risk of reduced privacy and security

In surveys (e.g. Manca & Ranieri 2016), this is often given as a major reason for not using social media. On an individual level it means thinking about the boundaries between your personal and professional life, including the issue of whether it is acceptable to ‘friend’ students. More widespread risks include:

  • Surveillance and misuse of your personal data by Google, Facebook and others (Lanchester 2017, Social Media Lab)
  • Data breaches
  • Hacking and identity theft
  • Social media phishing
  • Malware, spyware and viruses
  • Fraud.

5. The risk of it consuming too much time

Learning any new skill takes time, but many longstanding social media users acknowledge that it makes ongoing time demands, leading to some users taking ‘holidays’ away from social media. The time demands include:

  • The short-form writing used in social media being different from traditional academic writing (and evolving rapidly). Emoticon use is one example. This can take time to learn.
  • Navigating your institution’s social media policies (Pasquini & Evangelopoulos 2017).
  • Gaining familiarity with copyright and intellectual property rules.
  • Gaining technical skills – learning how social media works, and keeping up with the frequent changes in the ways in which platforms are designed/operate.
  • Platforms such as Facebook seeking to make their sites addictive, keeping you on there for as long as possible.


As a work-in-progress, I’d love to hear your views on the above. For example, are some risks missing? What do you think of the categories? Do you know of other work being done on these topics? All comments welcome, thank you.