Saturday, December 5, 2015

Social Media and the Dark Side

Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube have revolutionised the way we connect, communicate and collaborate.  When I first started teaching, connecting with other classrooms around the word was problematic, took a long time, or  it was expensive.  You could write a letter and hope for a response, make a phone call (teleconferencing came later) but most times it was expensive and hardly collaborative.  It helped if you had a fancy speaker phone but even those were rare.  I remember the first fax my class sent and the thrill of receiving one back.  There we all were, crowded into the school office, whispering in an effort not to disturb the school secretary.  

Fun times.

Fast forward to now and the options for connecting are virtually endless.  The tools at my disposal as a leader (Twitter, Facebook, website, email and School App...) makes keeping the community informed so much easier.  On a personal level, some of these same tools make keeping in touch with family and friends around the world a breeze, and my own professional learning networks and development opportunities are only limited by a lack of time to engage with everyone! 

But all that glitters is not always gold.  

Sometimes social media is a device used to harm and sometimes an uninformed post written in haste or anger, or a small snippet of video without the context included, has the ability to inflame, incite and go viral.  The unintended consequences can go from ripple to tidal wave in a short time. 

Recently, a local High School was dragged through the media by a short Youtube clip showing only a small snippet of an incident.  Before the poster had a chance to work through the consequences of their actions, the clip had gone viral and the comments had turned into hateful threats.  

It is not an isolated case.  Schools all around the globe are dealing with comments made on social media every day that are often times out of context and lacking perspective.  There by the grace of the Universe go all of us.  It would be naive to think any of us are immune.  One small molehill can be blown into a mountain before we have time to even realise.

When someone posts a provocative statement or media clip, it has the potential to bring out the worst in humanity.  I have seen things on my own social network feeds where someone makes a comment about an incident, and before they can blink grown adults are inciting hate and violence towards the perpetrator of the incident.  What is often lacking is perspective and empathy.  It is particularly the case when the incidents involve 'bullying'.  What we never see in these short snippets of an incident is the context.  We don't know the children, how old they are, if they simply made a dumb decision (it happens, I dare you to say you have never made a stupid decision whilst you were navigating the waters of growing up), and we don't know what happened prior.   We also don't know what the school is doing about it or how much they have done but can't tell you about.   In truth, we know nothing.  

I know there are those who would say that what happens in a private Facebook post or social media site is within the freedom of speech realms and therefore perfectly fine.  To that I respond with the following suggestions. 

Things to consider when navigating social media posts:

1. Keep things in perspective.  
This is most important and all others boil down to this.  Do you know all the facts, are you aware of the context and how accurate is the account you are seeing or reading?  It is very easy to get caught up in the drama of an incident and feel outraged or great sympathy, but remember, if you don't have all the facts you can make it worse.  Lack of information should not be an excuse for an inappropriate response.

2. Before you comment think it through. 
If you are going to comment, remember the old saying, 'Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?'  Your comment could inflame things and make the situation worse.  When in doubt, take your hands off the keyboard. 

 3. Have a 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Moment.
By this I mean, try walking around in the shoes of the accused.  How would you feel if you were the child or the parents of the accused?  Especially when the most hostile and hateful of comments are being bandied around, and where suggestions such as calling for police intervention (not always helpful) are advised or worse, when there is a call for violence toward the perpetrator.   Again, keep things in perspective. 

4. Schools are communities and real people reside there.
Some posts can go viral and before you know it, people are making judgements on the school, its leadership, and the staff, all without any real knowledge or context.  These kind of hate cries hurt schools reputations and cause huge amounts of distress to all the people who work there and to other parents and children.  If the comments name people it is likely to be slanderous.  

5. You are an adult.
Sometimes the language and the threats that come after some posts is disgraceful.  The recent example on the news here in NZ showed what happens when things get out of hand and highlights the potential damage something like this can cause.    It was made all the worse by finding out that those who were making the threats and using the appalling language, were adults.  Not juveniles whose ability to reason is still being formed, but adults!  When adults are making comments that incite violence towards little children they really need to have a long hard look at themselves in a mirror.  

6. What goes online stays online. 
This is not a chalk or whiteboard graffiti moment.  If it is online, even if it gets taken down, it has a footprint that remains.  Did you know that everything you put on Facebook - even the characters you typed but deleted, are still retained, just incase they are needed for an investigation by the authorities later.  (there are so many security topics on this - google it to find out more) Even if you delete the post, it may well have been screen shot and saved by another user.  Remember, if unkind and inappropriate things are said about a child, that stays online.  I wonder, Is that appropriate? 

7. If you are the owner of the post, ask yourself these questions.
What am I wanting to achieve by posting this?  What is the response if it gets out of hand?  How do I feel about others inciting hate or violence - what is my moral obligation?  How would I feel if this was in reverse? If it was my family or my child, how would I feel?  When in doubt, take the post down.  Numerous countries, including New Zealand, have laws around protecting the rights of people online - best to err on the side of caution. 

8. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, report the post. 
Most social media sites allow a user to report inappropriate posts.  If you see a post that looks like it is getting out of hand or potentially harmful towards the school or a child/family - report it.  You can do this anonymously and the owner of the post will not know you did it.  

Perhaps what is needed, is a digital disclaimer by internet providers where users sign up to a code of conduct.  We expect our students to behave appropriately online and it would stand to reason that the same should be a an expectation of parents.    

In summary, social media has the power to be a force of great good for schools, but when the force turns bad it has the potiential to escalate fast.  Being mindful of the bigger picture and the wider context is important.   Sometimes it can be easy to forget there are real people at the other end of a screen,.  

As we head into the start of a new school year, perhaps now is a good time for our communities to consider their online footprint and etiquette.  If we teach our students to be mindful of what they post by having them consider 'is it kind, is it true and is it necessary', then we are going to make great inroads towards a better online environment.  

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