FAO Chief Executive, The Samaritans.
Re: Radar app.
I wish to complain about the disastrous implementation of the Samaritans Radar app this week. The nature of my complaint is threefold.
Firstly, you launched a risky and invasive app upon an unsuspecting Twitter mental health community without warning. You say you consulted with potential users in development and tested the app extensively, yet you clearly did not consult the thousands of Twitter members who regularly tweet about mental health issues. I am a vocal and longstanding member of that community yet neither nor anyone else I follow had heard of the app until its launch.
Had you consulted with your target audience, you would have quickly learned why the Radar is both flawed and risky. It operates on the assumption that people in connection with one another on Twitter are “friends”. This may be somewhat more true of Facebook, where for example I have around 200 “friends” almost all of whom I know in some capacity in real life. It most certainly is not true of Twitter, where I have approaching 8000 followers. How on earth could I have a relationship with anything but a fraction of this number? Some followers are interested in my work in mental health, some presumably follow for more personal reasons but it is impossible for me to know since I cannot interact with the majority.
I do however know that there is a minority who follow me because they dislike me and want to keep an eye on what I am doing – this is a pitfall of being so very public about my mental health. Yet even with a currently locked account, unless I explicitly opt out, you offered via Radar assistance to anyone at all among the 8000 to monitor my distress levels covertly. This means your later advice to make accounts private is hardly any help unless you have so few followers you know them all personally. It is also frankly insulting; it’s pretty much like telling people that if they don’t want strangers peering through their window they should keep their blinds shut 24/7.
As someone with bipolar disorder I am frequently suicidal, and often talk about it on Twitter. It’s a place I can express myself without worrying that I will upset relatives, where I can say the unsayable because other people understand. How on earth do you think it helps me to feel potentially spied upon during those conversations? How on earth do you think it helps me to give my trolls a heads up that I am vulnerable, so that they can relish attacking me when I am down? How on earth does it help anyone when talking about suicide in a theoretical, policy or academic sense, as many mental health activists do, rings “false positive” alarm bells?
Please don’t tell me that I am wrong about any of this; I may be 40 years old but have used the internet for mental heath support longer than your target “digital natives” have been alive and have used social media far longer than my children and stepchildren, who are in their teens and twenties. In addition I speak at conferences about act as a consultant on the use of social media for online mental health peer support networks.
My second concern is that this should have been perpetrated against the mental health community by an organisation that community trusted. Why did people (and this includes me, as a sometime user of your services) trust you? Because we knew that unlike our dealings with the NHS, you were never monitoring/assessing our risk and passing that risk information to a third party. You were just there for us. And so you launch an app that monitors us and passes the information to a third party? This feels like a sick joke, a perversion of the trusted relationship The Samaritans has built up with the mental health community over decades.
My final point concerns your organisation’s handling of the Twitter mental health community’s overwhelmingly negative response to Radar. I appreciate your digital comms team must have been overwhelmed with tweets – I was certainly deluged by people telling me how distressed they were, how frightened they were, how Orwellian the whole thing seemed. I had to watch distressed friends go into a complete panic as they feared Twitter, often their one authentic space to talk about issues like suicidal ideation, was no longer safe. I saw people leave Twitter, immediately, possibly never to return. I saw people close down fruitful, supportive accounts and create brand new locked ones, beginning a laborious process of trying to recreate their safe space all over again where Radar could not get at them. I saw people say that they could now never speak openly on Twitter about their suicidal thoughts again. I saw victims of abuse and stalking terrified that their abusers would sign up to monitor them and exploit their vulnerability.
Your comms team must have seen that distress. They must, surely, have read at least some of the numerous blogs which popped up exploring the ethical, legal and emotional ramifications of Radar. One prominent member of the community, who is also a mental health professional, went so far as to tweet you her fears that we were witnessing “the death of the Twitter mental health community”. And as an organisation you must have accepted some of our points, because you responded with the opt-out so-called “whitelist” (although you took 15 hours to respond to this request in my case). This was a big step forward, but will of course do no good at all to Twitter members who have not heard about Radar and so do not know they could be monitored, or who do not know how to opt-out.
But what has been conspicuously absent from your cut-and-paste Twitter and email responses? One important word: sorry. You, a large, respected and established mental health charity, have this week caused huge distress, fear and anger among the very people you purport to want to help. The great irony is that had you launched Radar as an opt-IN service, many of the people who were so deeply troubled by its current form would have welcomed nominating selected friends to keep an eye on them. Instead, you used us as experimental subjects for your tech, crowed about its “reach” after a day your subjects had found traumatic, and have expressed no regret to the damage you caused. We in the mental health community have learned to expect this kind of shabby treatment from the organisation like Asda or Thorpe Park, who care very little about the effect of their actions on us. To receive it from an organisation that exists supposedly to support us? Heartbreaking.
I look forward to your comments, and most specifically your apology, which I will be more than happy to share via Twitter and my blog.