A university I know of has hired a member of staff whose primary job is to monitor the tweets and social media posts of students. The way it works is that when a student applies to the university the university asks if they can follow the student on Twitter – they no doubt use emoticons 🙂 or the ubiquitous : ) symbol, thus giving students the impression this is an entirely benign gesture of ‘friendship’.
Two years later the student posts a mildly critical tweet about the University and the next day is rung at home by the Dean Of School and given a dressing down for ‘publicly’ criticising the university.
This is in fact exactly what happened last week at the university in question – except it was even more sinister because the student had tweeted under a tag and not her own name, so the university must have instigated some sort of minor ‘investigation’ to discover who she really was. And to repeat, her criticisms of the university were expressed moderately and were not defamatory of any individuals. Whatever claims the institution may make about their benign pastoral motives for doing this, the truth is that for the student concerned to be rung up at home by the Dean of School was terrifying and clearly intended to be intimidating.
When discussing this today with some young people I know I was astounded to discover it is now common practice for employers to seek to control the social media of their young staff in extraordinarily intimate ways. This morning one of them had been informed by her employer that she had to change her Facebook profile picture to include the logo of a promotion her employers are currently engaged in. This wasn’t a request, it was a direct instruction, on the basis that ‘everyone needs to know you are on board with the promotion’ and thus the implied threat that if you are not ‘onboard with the promotion’ then your position as an employee is somehow under review.
Another girl who works at a well-known high-end Grocery chain was told that mentioning her employer in anything but positive terms on Twitter or facebook was a sackable offence and that her employer had to be allowed to follow her on those social media in order to monitor what she said and thus enforce the rule if she disobeyed.
It was also clear to me that these young people regard social media (particularly twitter & Facebook) as a ‘private’ space in which they are talking only to an invited chosen group not to the entire world. And this is of course true. To see the Tweets or Facebook posts of any individual I have to be accepted by them as a ‘friend’. It is also true that because of the interconnected nature of social media and the use of formats such as hashtags, any private comment I make to my closed group can theoretically and practically be disseminated far beyond my original group of chosen ‘friends’. Hence the corporate insistence that all social media are essentially ‘public’ forums. But does this corporate insistence upon the public nature of social media really stand up? Apart from speed of dissemination why is the spreading of gossip online any different from that happening in the material world? Is the principle any different if I tell a group of friends in the pub that my employers are bastards and they then tell all their mates, who then tell all their mates and so on? Would we accept my employer having the right to stop me discussing what I think of them with my friends in a restaurant or pub? They surely would want to but would it be legitimate for them to do so?
It is completely understandable why universities want to limit and control student criticisms of the institution and why companies want to prevent staff bad-mouthing them. It is also entirely understandable why governments want to monitor our private conversations and suppress dissent.
The question isn’t whether it’s understandable; the question is whether it is right! Whether it infringes our rights as free men and women living in a free country? And whether it limits our right to free speech, freedom of expression and to free assembly?
Whatever these institutions and corporations say about their motives, it is clear that online social media has enabled them to invade our private lives in ways that would not have been tolerated in the pre-internet age.
We simply would not accept universities or employers attempting to control our social conversations in the pub in our own free time; we wouldn’t accept employers telling us what clothes to wear when we went out socially; we wouldn’t accept our university or our employer ‘hacking’ into our private phone lines or sending photographers out to record what we do on a Saturday night and then disciplining us for it at work! But because all this is happening online these institutions seem to think it is legitimate for them to monitor, direct and control us in our private spaces and in our own time. Well, it isn’t legitimate, it is a fascistic and totalitarian intrusion and every university administrator or corporate bureaucrat who peers into the private lives of their students or staff should be ashamed of themselves and be aware that they are no different from the administrators of the S. African pass system or the venal spies of the E. German Stasi and the Russian KGB.
Shame on them. And shame on us for letting them do it!