Exploring Some Risks of Academic Social Media
A few conversations recently have highlighted that I enjoy social media with a sense of privilege, and perhaps it’s worthwhile to spend a short moment to look at the darker side of social media. This should be considered in context, I am an active user of social media, and I have the huge fortune of being (reasonably) successful at in deriving personal value both online and offline from its use.
Before I put folks off, I’d like to highlight that I truly believe social media in academia provides value. This is well captured in a claim that Dr Jess Wade, Prof Chris Jackson and me have made:
“social media provides a 24/7 café that transcends lab walls, country borders, career stages, languages (through Twitter’s in-built translation tools), cultures and backgrounds. The benefits of social media are timely and immediate: it helps us to communicate with our peers without the need (or environmental cost) of flying to international conferences; it can help reduce the feeling of isolation; and it creates inclusive spaces that facilitate interactions with a diverse range of people, particularly those from a generation that have grown up online. Our interactions have also helped us recruit new staff and students.” — Ben Britton, Chris Jackson and Jess Wade in Nature Reviews Chemistry (2019)
To strengthen this argument it does depends on what you do with social media, as Prof Jackson explains…
Now Chris and I both ‘work at twitter’ and I’d suggest we have pretty good support networks, and experiences (on the whole) with our twitter experiences. There is joy and positively that comes from this, and I’d also like to remember that I tweet out of boredom, loneliness, and more.
All these good points still mean I’m keen to keep involved, but I’d also like to highlight some issues that some folks experience, and this is based upon a few recent conversations, often behind closed doors, have made me revisit the ‘risks’ of engaging on social media.
This line of thought was provoked when someone I know was contacted via email about their conduct on social media. As it happens, I happened to see the live interactions — where the twitter thread involved a mixture of people differently established in academia. In the discussion, a few folks from underrepresented minorities were calling into question the status quo. There was robust challenging of the ‘protagonists’ who are from historically and presently overrepresented groups and each of them exerts significant power in real life. The online back-and-forth was illuminating to see as an observer, especially in terms of highlighting privilege in academia.
Yet, there was a problem, as the discussion in part moved elsewhere, and the majority did not see the offline follow-up. I am led to believe this conversation was ‘less than ideal’ (n.b. this is a Britishism).
Apologies that this anecdote is awkwardly worded — the people involved can guess to what I am referring to (can you sub-blog people?). However, I’d also err that numerous people may think that this conversation refers to something that happened to them, as I have found that this pattern is not unique or original.
Silencing through back channels, and retribution for on-line comments, happens more often than it should (i.e. n>0). This prompted me to have a wider explore.
A highly unscientific twitter poll, which reached 1000 votes, highlighted that around one if five people have had negative comments from their boss (or bosses’ boss) based upon their twitter habits. Over one in ten have have negative comments from their colleagues, and at least 15 people have had comments from students.
Of course, some of these comments may have been warranted. We’ve all seen someone say something and winced slightly. However, a deeper dive suggests that this casual inference is perhaps the exception, and in many cases a power dynamic was being actively abused and people are being silenced.
At this point I should highlight that my boss has been supportive, or at worse raised an eyebrow, at my twitter habits. But I have received negative comments — or just backhanded ‘compliments’ from colleagues along the way.
Yes — I have also had some shit from other people. I have had to have an awkward conversation with my boss about trans rights; I’ve chatted to the college legal team when someone tried to sue me; I’ve been subjected to a massive attack by transphobes; I’ve been negatively described on Mumsnet; I’ve had some homophobia; I’ve had negative lecture evaluations from students (n.b. I don’t comment on students I teach on twitter, so this was a unfortunate case where rumours ran away, sorry folks); and this is just the stuff I know about…
I’d suggest, unscientifically, that the abuse that people receive is worse for folks from marginalised and minoritized groups. This was echoed in my Direct Messages (DMs), where folks shared about how they were involved in legal disputes, subject to abuse from their boss, or had their voices silenced due to the power of their institutions.
In more than one case a Vice Chancellor / Pro Vice Chancellor had directly been in touch to question someone’s conduct on twitter. All of these DM conversations were with people who did not fit within the historically overrepresented cis-het-able-white-male grouping.
I can reproduce a few of these anecdotes, shared all with permission:
“A former HoD outed my chronic mental illness to the university after reading about it on Twitter, and used this revelation as a basis to bully me. It was horrific, as you can imagine.” — anon
“Recently pulled up by boss and boss’ boss for tweeting about the foreseen consequences of management decisions (which were pointed out by staff & @ucu continuously) resulting in extra staff work to compensate. Told I wasn’t being a “team-player” with senior management” — anon
“Twitter is great, but at what cost? Knowing I was being monitored, I stopped posting and had a small mental health crisis.” — anon
“I avoid discussing some topics on twitter, as there is active litigation with a potential employer.” — anon
The stories behind these are pretty horrific and eye opening. I am comfortable in arguing that each of them are victims of senior people abusing power. This results in people suffering direct harm and their careers have been impacted.
So, what do we do about this? Many might want to look at policy based interventions, and yet a sample poll highlights that most people do not know their employers social media policy, and even worse a huge fraction also do not think their social media policy is supportive of them.
I can share that the Imperial College London policy on social media is generous, and there is support available, and we have a huge fraction of staff, students and alums engaged, so you can reach out if you get into a spot of trouble. I should also note that I checked the social media policy of my future employer (UBC) before I considered applying for a job with them.
The policies are permissive, encouraging and supportive, and they ‘let me get away’ with quite a bit. This last part is super important. In academia, there is a minimum requirement, e.g. that we create and sustain spaces that are inclusive and supportive for individuals to learn; tensioned with the ability for us to explore challenging ideas.
I should also share that I have been on the ‘other side’ where I have been part of a group who actively called out social media behaviour of a senior manager for being transphobic. After some press and a few tense discussions that was largely resolved with a few tweets deleted and more care was exercised in future. I have quite a bit of respect for the individual and the groups involved for how we all moved forward as a result. (We shouldn’t have had to resort to an open letter, but that’s a different conversation…)
However, in my discussions around this subject with many others from different institutions, I can see that the ‘fortune’ I have at Imperial is not shared elsewhere. Powerful, and important, stories on difficult conversations that criticised institutions, e.g. on institutional racism and more, are being actively silenced.
For instance, the University of Nottingham has a policy that restricts “anything that will compromise the safety or reputation of the University or anyone associated with it”. There are also some Universities that seem to have very permissive policies, but staff have had disciplinary warnings for their conduct (which to an outsider would be well within their policy) and the individual’s public feeds are widely read by senior management teams.
These horrific stories are especially horrific when you consider that the majority of people think that social media benefits our employers.
In light of this apparent disconnect, what can we do?
Institutions need to up their game and actively support staff. Provide active support for social media use, and create networks where best practice can be shared.
Individuals can remember that there are many risks to social media. Everyone can see comments, and this is both beneficial but subject to abuse. While people may not ‘follow you’, people will likely lurk your feed (no matter how ‘famous’ you are. Tweets can printed or emailed amongst colleagues. People have been hauled up by HR and more for their conduct, rightly and wrongly.
I’d also note that these the risks are not felt equally across society. I’d suggest that individuals from historically overrepresented groups can purposefully or inadvertently take advantage of this. I know this especially impacts international students and staff who worry about their participation in online discourse and how their government, or future employers may consider their online feeds. (n.b. many employers will legally look at your available social media presence when hiring.)
As individuals, we can all also choose to amplify and actively support those who are traditionally left out of the conversation. Have a think about who you follow, who you reply to, and who you give the benefit of the doubt to in an online discourse. Do feel free to nudge and be available to provide support where you can (for instance, my DMs are open to assist others here!).
On balance I will still tweet, and I’ll encourage others to tweet, but I’m working on how we can open a conversation about the real and apparent risks that must be tensioned with the ample rewards.
Dr Ben Britton is presently a Reader in Metallurgy and Microscopy at Imperial College London. He can be found often on twitter as @bmatb. He writes on medium, often about social media, and occasionally gets these read by other people.