Ed: We invited Mark Brown (@markoneinfour) to share the perspective from the Twitterverse on a new Twitter app released yesterday by the UK charity, the Samaritans, meant to help people who express suicidal words on Twitter. We also asked the Samaritans for their response to the concerns expressed within this article, but they did not respond to our request.
People are raising concerns about the Samaritans Radar Twitter app launched in the UK on 29th October are coming at it from 6 main angles. At present, the guidance from the Samaritans says that, “Unfortunately, we can’t remove individuals as it’s important that Radar is able to identify their Tweets if they need support.”
The charity has responded by releasing three 1-minute videos to address the concerns, stressing that ‘tweets are public‘.
People with mental health difficulties are unhappy that the new Samaritans Radar app allows people who follow them on Twitter to be alerted when they mention things in tweets that may indicate suicidal thoughts. On Twitter, the only way to control who follows you is to block people that you do not want to follow you. Many — if not most — people on Twitter have no personal relationship to the people that follow them. Many people have more followers than people they follow. This can happen even at very low levels of followers/follows.
The net result of this is that people are worried that people with whom they have no bond or relationship will be able to monitor their twitter streams.
People with mental health difficulties on Twitter have raised the fear that many of the people signing up for the app have the best intentions — as the app does too — but would have a very limited ability to actually provide any help or support to someone feeling suicidal. Some people with mental health difficulties have raised the point that a tide of well-wishers at a time of low mood or where someone is speaking about difficult things may actually derail helpful support conversations.
Some people with mental health difficulties feel that Twitter has been the only place that they can openly talk with other people with similar difficulties about their feelings. While all of Twitter is indeed public, the app, in some people’s views, would allow people to zero in on conversations about suicide and despair. They’re also concerned it could potentially disrupt conversations and relationship that have been positive and helpful ones. Some worry about stalking or abuse as a result of this feature.
There have been objections to the legality of providing such a service without the option for individuals to opt-out, processing personal data as it does. It must be noted, though, that many web-based tools, Twitter apps, and services use data in similar ways. The issue is that as an individual Twitter user, there is no way to signal at present that you do not want your tweets to be monitored.
Another larger bone of contention is that the app has been launched without any clear consultation with people with mental health difficulties who regularly use Twitter. Functioning as it does, some argue that it seriously compromises privacy and impedes their ability to speak plainly and openly about their mental health. This was exacerbated by tweets early on from Joe Ferns, Director of Policy, Research and Development at @Samaritans:
— JoeFerns_Samaritans (@Ferns_Joe) October 29, 2014
@Ferns_Joe The broader issue is that you have no idea how we actually use Twitter.
— Tentacle Sixteen (@latentexistence) October 29, 2014
Ferns has roughly 300 followers and follows roughly 300 people on Twitter. Some of the users most concerned have follower counts in the tens of thousands — a situation, they would argue, that changes the dynamic of the app significantly.
Suggesting that if users want greater privacy from the app they should mark their tweets as “private” misses the point of how most people use Twitter. Making tweets private will prevent them from being indexed, removes for many the ability to reach out to others, interact via hashtags conversations, and interact via the medium of Twitter. These are some of the primary attractions of the platform over closed reciprocal networks like Facebook.
For some, Twitter is the only place they have felt able to meet others with mental health difficulties and to be honest about their true feelings. They would claim by throwing a spotlight on a space that they already felt under attack from stigma, harassment and abusive tweets, the app further disrupts that space by attracting the attention of unknown and unknowable ‘concerned’ followers with whom they have no relationship feeling they must intervene in conversations which they may not understand the context or sensitivity.
It is worth keeping in mind that the criticism of the app on the #samaritansradar hashtag represents a subset of people with #mentalhealth difficulties on twitter, but it represents some of the most followed voices. At present, apart from anecdote, it is not possible to ascertain how many people have chose to make their tweets private to avoid the actions of the app.
Ed: We agree with the concerns raised by people on Twitter regarding this well-intended but poorly thought-out app. We recommend people not use the app until the Samaritans directly address the concerns of Twitter users with mental health concerns.