The evils of social networks?

One of the events contributing to the current media and political fury over the evils of social networks and internet trolls has been the death of Hannah Smith, a Leicester teenager who committed suicide after apparently being bullied on Ask.fm.

However, it has subsequently turned out that 98% of the anonymous bullying messages Hannah received may have been posted by herself using other accounts.

If true, this backs up my point in a previous article that blaming these phenomena on the social networks themselves is dangerously missing the point.

If someone’s mentally unstable enough to kill themselves because of online harassment, then there’s a deeper problem with that person that isn’t going to be solved by changing Ask.fm or any other website.

The current media scaremongering about the evils of social networks is drawing attention away from the real issues – like media scaremongering always has, does and will.

The moral panic whipped up by traditional media over an issue like this forms a nexus of self-serving interests:

The relatives of a victim seek something external to blame, to avoid examining their own failures of responsibility.

Newspapers and broadcasters, desperate for an easy story to sell, latch onto the simplistic narrative which points the finger at a single cause, rather than wrestle with deep and complex social issues. The less people generally know and understand about the putative scapegoat, the better.

The public happily give in to their baser instincts of fearing the unknown, the outsider, the other. They, too, would rather not have to look too closely at their own culpability; they, too, would rather avoid the harder work of properly understanding the issue in all its complexity. Instead, they get their satisfaction by demanding something is done about it, whatever it is.

Finally, the politicians fall over themselves to show that they will indeed do something about it: usually by passing hasty, poorly-written legislation; certainly never by tackling the really difficult underlying causes.

It’s why people obsess over serial killers and fear their children will be molested by predatory strangers, when the vast majority of murders and sexual abuse are committed by friends and relatives of the victims.

And it’s the reason social networks based in Latvia and the USA are currently under fire for crimes committed by UK citizens against other UK citizens while the UK police did nothing, and for not preventing the suicide of a UK teenager, whose own family hadn’t noticed her vulnerability, even while she apparently spent hours posting abuse to herself online.

6 thoughts on “The evils of social networks?

  1. But at least it is beginning to highlight the issues of online bullying that has previously been ignored. Now the vast majority of the population has access to the web many people as susceptible, but there has been a lack of awareness. Agree that one website being targeted is wrong as I am sure many other social media sites have a far higher death toll. The media are just going about it in their usual messy, sensationalist way that does eventually help tease out a decent debate in the wake of it’s bile sloshing, spittle flecked speed boat of “popular” opinion.

    • My point wasn’t really that we’re examining one particular social network when we should be looking at them all; it was that we should be examining human nature, what people communicate and why, and not so much the means they use to do it.

      As for looking at death tolls, I think that would be an interesting study. Is there an identifiable increase in teenage suicides correlated to the rise in popularity of social networks? A quick look at the Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2013 shows that the UK suicide rate slowly decreased from 2001 to 2007, and slightly increased again from 2007 to 2011 (the recession period), but was still lower in 2011 than 2001. The vast majority of those suicides were among adults. From 2009 to 2011, the suicide rate for the 15-19 age group remained fairly steady at just under 5 per 100,000.

      My hypothesis would therefore be no, social networks haven’t had a significant impact on teenage suicide rates. Teenagers are just continuing to kill themselves at the rate they always have. It suggests teenage suicide is, as it always has been, caused not by social networks, but by a normal rate of mental illness, probably due to a combination of factors including the stress of adolescence, identity issues (such as homosexuality), and bullying – in whatever form.

      As for sparking a decent discussion, true, although I’m a bit more pessimistic about which has the greater effect on policy – the decent discussion that’s had by intelligent, informed commentators on the sidelines, or the much bigger, louder hysterical reaction by the mainstream media. Most of David Cameron’s big policy announcements seem to be driven by the Daily Mail agenda.

  2. I’m going to guess that anyone reading this will already be pretty sympathetic to this point of view, because it’s on a blog and promoted through Twitter and Facebook. Until you’re the victim of some sort of social media-based crime and the papers find sections of this blog and print them.

    • It’s a good point, although you could distill it even further: what’s the point of me writing all of this, when my readership basically consists of you? I could just email you my latest rant each day instead.

      I think an important factor in a blog’s success is defining a particular set of topics to write about, and attracting an audience interested in reading about those topics. If I wrote exclusively about free speech and technology issues from a liberal perspective, I’m sure I’d be able to build a larger readership, but then I’d suffer from the problem you identify – I’d be preaching to the converted.

      Also, I don’t want to constrain myself to writing about particular topics. I’ll write about whatever interests me at the time. So my readership will probably remain limited to people who know me personally. The selective nature of friendship means there is a slight bias there towards agreement with my ideas. But it’s actually quite a small effect – I have major disagreements with friends all the time. The previous post on this topic was extracted from an argument with Kath Hibbert, for example.

      The bias from advertising posts through Facebook and Twitter is not as great as you think, either. The advocates of #TwitterSilence were by definition users of Twitter, despite their issues with it. Most people in the media, including those calling for changes or restrictions on social networks, are users of those networks. The bigger problem is that my Facebook audience is just my friends, and my Twitter audience is… just my friends. So it’s the same problem as above.

      • Ha ha, that’s a much more thoughtful response than I was expecting. Just in case it’s not clear – I’m thoroughly enjoying both the range of topics in this blog and also the unemployed-friendly quantity of posts.

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