Complaint to the Samaritans re: Radar app

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 I 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.

Yours sincerely,

Charlotte Walker

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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20 Responses to Complaint to the Samaritans re: Radar app

  1. Will be interesting to see what response you get!

  2. Ron says:

    While I only occasionally suffer from MH problems (depression), I am very seriously ill physically, and depend upon my Twitter support a great deal (this is why I check in every morning – several people look for that to make sure I’m OK and not in hospital again). Inevitably, having been active online for the better part of 20 years, I’ve attracted my share (more than my share, it feels like at times), of psychopaths. They have all been blocked or otherwise excluded from my online presence, and I worry that the Radar app might give them a way back in. Right now I couldn’t deal with the stress.

  3. Vivienne Banks says:

    As usual you do a fantastic job of putting into words how many people feel. Thank you for this and I sincerely hope that you receive a reply and an apology. Awaiting this with interest …….

  4. I think this app will lead to less openness and so be self-defeating. It has a feeling of surveillance about it, which reverses the traditional polarity of the Samaritans, which I always thought of as passive support for those that sought it.

  5. Sarah says:

    i think this is a really difficult one, cos they can only monitor stuff that’s out there publicly anyway so anyone with a negative agenda could already get that info. I do get what you are saying but those that have attempted to take their own life, who talk about it and who put it out there have to take responsibility for their words too, its so distressing frightening and stressful supporting someone who has attempted before and may be violent to themselves again, living on a knifes edge not knowing. I realise that the sufferer is going through hell but anyone that talks about violence to themselves has to take responsibility for their words. words affect others. and it goes both ways.

    • I talk about doing “violence to myself” as you put it all the time on Twitter and this blog. I have also supported numerous online contacts who have attempted or are on the edge. But you see, I have these things called “friends”. Friends are people who although I have only met them via Twitter care enough about me to check in with me before they go to bed and when they wake up, who states openly, “I am really concerned about you, how can I help?” They don’t need an app to record what I have been saying while the were asleep or at work, because the simply message me as soon as the wake/return asking how I am and telling me they are thinking of me. Unless you are willing to sit up all night every night in case you get a Radar email you are going to be no better informed that if you simply had a look at that person’s timeline whenever you get up, since that’s where the data is coming from.
      I am afraid I do not consider the actions of a person who covertly employs a third partly to monitor without me knowing any sort of notification the definition of a “friend”. I don’t want friends that spy on me, and have zero idea how they think feel spied upon is supposed to improve my mental health. Furthermore, I regularly train people on a nationally accredited training course in how to work with anyone who is suicidal. The key skills required are a) gaining the person’s trust and b) listening actively and empathically. Breaching trust by covert monitoring and “listening” as a one-way street are precisely the *opposite* of known good practice in preventing suicide.
      I’m afraid I see this service all about the people who are worried about a “problem person” in their life, since it has little or no benefit for the monitored subject in the way that a mutually agreed opt-in system would’ve done. And doing stuff TO US, without even telling us, let alone consulting, is simply downright unethical. If you’re worried about someone, it’s for you to find a way to respectfully interact with that person, AND for you to work on managing your own anxiety. I am not a child and I am not a criminal. I will not be tagged and monitored.

  6. I have been reading about this between you, Sectioned, and others on twitter and trying to be more informed about this. In The States they are promoting something similar to this, it is called #CheckUpProject. I would rather that social media be leaders in tools for prevention and outreach not monitoring or flagging conversations. There is initiative called #TalkTextAct (no affiliation)which is more proactive ( Need to be more proactive than reactive.

  7. luvintheprof says:

    The whole thing beggars belief, Charlotte. I can totally understand how distressing it is for you and lots of others who use Twitter to share their innermost feelings when they’re desperately struggling. Like a lot of others, I’ll be interested to see what their response is or if you even get one at all. Thanks so much for doing this, I really appreciate it. xXBrendaXx

    P.S. You have your Dad’s nose!!!

  8. My thought (and perhaps it’s an unfair assumption) is that their focus groups concentrated on ‘youth’ – 18-35 group – and forgot that this actually affects everyone who uses Twitter – not just those who they see as their ‘target audience’. I wish they would listen more. Which is ironic.

  9. jesslinworld says:

    You expressed it so well. I can only think the group of people they tested it on must have been using twitter in a different way.
    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that many twitter accounts are anonymous, with no real name, – and certainly no address! Having followed a very suicidal person on twitter and tried to support her, I found it very distressing that when she was overdosing and tweeting. I didn’t know her real name or where she lived and had to wait helplessly for her to reappear on twitter. I had to stop following her in the end.

    • Thats a good point, I’ve been asked to speak at Peerfest on 21st Nov about online peer support and although of course I am very pro it, I will be exploring exactly this kind of pitfall in the workshop. It’s not just having the information, it’s being able to *do* something useful with it. If it just flags up that you need to try and connect with and support a person, that’s one thing, but what if people who know very little about mental health sign up and wake up to a worrying email? Would they have enough info to call police/ambulance? SHOUD they – would the person welcome this? So many pitfalls to this!

  10. Ed says:

    You can also make a complaint about Samaritans to the Charity Commission at:

  11. steveflatt says:

    Hi Charlotte,

    When I heard about this App (second hand) my first response was that it was the first step in a big brother response to people’s private lives. There is an underlying assumption here that the “professionals” know better and that they can interpret the (written) words of another person sufficiently accurately to be able to make a judgement about their mental state.

    the App also assumes that the person would want someone to intervene in their online activities. There are a whole range of ethical issues related to freedom of choice, privacy, to consider just two, in that assumption.

    I hear now that this App has difficulty differentiating between sarcasm and non sarcastic statements. On that basis if my tweets are ever responded to by this App I will kill myself!!!

    As someone who has been working in this field for many years and is involved in designing apps for addressing psychological distress I am appalled that an organisation like the Samaritans didn’t think this one through more carefully. App design in this area is a minefield with so many aspects that can destroy lives and blow up in the face of the organisation promoting it. I rather suspect that this was their first attempt at gathering “big data” – well guys – trust me this isn’t the way to do it!

    I look forward to seeing what happens next. Good luck with your campaign.

    Steve Flatt

    • Thanks Steve! Even leaving aside the ethical concerns, the false positive problem was always going to loom large. Many people who have mental health difficulties are, quite understandably, interested in more general mental health issues, whether policy/legislation, research findings, media portrayals, awareness campaigns, etc, so words around suicide are going to come up a lot regardless of people’s vulnerabilities…!

  12. Paula Cummings says:

    I didn’t actually know there was a huge mental health support community on Twitter…thank you for alerting me to this! A fantastic and insightful letter with some brilliant recommendations. If only it had been an ‘opt in’ service, with the user able to nominate a couple of trusted friends, this could have all been avoided. 😦

    • Paula, that is exactly why I am so frustrated! Many people have said to me that an opt-in would’ve been a great idea that they would’ve welcomed. It was indeed avoidable and is actually a big missed opportunity in addition to all the distressed caused.

  13. “I saw victims of abuse and stalking terrified that their abusers would sign up to monitor them and exploit their vulnerability.”

    Whoever at the Samaritans is project managing this disaster is fundamentally ignorant of internet dangers to adults. The subject of on-line abuse and stalking against adults is little addressed. There is massive ignorance with people talking about trolls when what they actually mean is “Netopath”, a Networked Sociopath. The media frenzy over risk to children and blogging feminists using any threat to garner massive attention has skewed the reality and perception of Cyber Staking and risk to others. That a great deal of this skewing is coming from USA based media is also ignored in the frenzy to get attention and notoriety and drive click-bait media revenues.

    Oxford Reference: Dictionary Of The Internet – Netopath, An Internet user who engages in extreme forms of net abuse such as stalking. ..

    The Samaritans Radar App is a stalkers and abusers charter, to find and target not only the at risk, but also those who could support. The false positive rates are such that it will be worse than the boy who cried wolf, it will be the whole village turning it’s back before any cry is made! The Wolves are empowered to identify and target with impunity.

    Women react to risk of personal danger, men react to attack upon reputation. This is likely to result in female Twitter users being affected more and to withdraw more. Research does show that on-line targeted abuse is very serious and can result in the levels of Mental Distress and PTSD normally only seen in Theatres Of War.

    “The study has shown that there is a difference in the main fear provoked in men when compared to women. Males are more likely to having the harasser damage their reputation, whereas women are shown to be more likely to focus on fear of physical harm. The effects of the damage caused by cyberstalking are shown to affect multiple aspects of people’s lives, from their working lives to their relationships with others. Respondents reported changing/losing jobs, isolating themselves by giving up social activities, having their relationships break up.” ECHO Project, Pilot Report 2011, Page 31 –

    When dealing with on-line abuse there are differences in the reactions of men and women. No app can address the subtleties of that. The Radar app can’t detect sarcasm or whimsy, so unless it has been programmed to identify gender and bias responses with a weight correct to gender, it will produce sexist output which raises the Equality Act and discrimination. The operation of the App even without gender weighting will adversely affect female twitter users than male.

    “34.9% of respondents who reported experiencing harassment showed all symptoms of PTSD according to the clinical questionnaire. 68.9% reported at least one symptom of PTSD.” ECHO Pilot, Page 26

    The Samaritans have Ignorantly underestimated the risk and potential impact to beneficiaries, and as such are acting in a way that is not allowed as a charity, placing beneficiaries at risk where through basic research and due diligence the Charity should be aware of those risks.

    That this Radar app allows vulnerable people to be identified and targeted is of grave concern as On-line/Real-world Stalking and Harassment cases at least 20% of such abusers are completely unknown to the people targeted. Such staking and vectored harassment is as damaging as being physically stalked and threatened. When it comes to exclusively cyber environments the percentage of abuser unknown to the target exceeds 99%.

    Netopaths are known to show Both Criminal and Entrepreneurial Versatility (Robert Hare, Chicago), in fact it’s one of the defining characteristics. They will have spotted the opportunity to use this App to target abuse and to do so in ways that are very hard to trace. The Samaritans as a charity are failing their beneficiaries, due to basic ignorance about the risks posed to people on line, and what would appear to be Grandstanding by those within this now tainted organisation. Such Internal politics is well known in long standing charities that have become complacent, allowing those with pay packets to ignore the beneficiaries whilst seeking ways to look good in public and across the charity sector.

    Heads need to roll and soonest. Until then, the app should be withdrawn and Beneficiaries with the relevant skills and knowledge listened to. Ignorance is not bliss when it costs lives and causes real world damage due to virtual stupidity.

  14. Pingback: A matter of opinion: are all views on mental health equally valid? | purplepersuasion

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