Below is an email I sent to the Samaritans (firstname.lastname@example.org) detailing my concerns about their new Samaritans Radar app. Information about the app can be found here: https://www.samaritansradar.org/ .
A good example of critical discussion can be found here: http://informationrightsandwrongs.com/2014/10/29/samaritans-radar-serious-privacy-concerns-raised/ .
For the personal responses of Twitter users to the release of this app, you can check out the #SamaritansRadar hashtag.
Email, sent on 30th October 2014:
I write to express my concerns about your new app, Samaritans Radar.
I am a freelance writer. I have been on Twitter since 2010, and since then, I have successfully used my single account for both work and personal purposes. I often write about mental health, you see, since I also have Borderline Personality Disorder.
For some time now, I have been involved in various campaigns to raise awareness of mental illness, combat the stigma that often surrounds it, and encourage people to be open about their issues. Sadly, the release of your app seems to have undone a lot of that work for many people.
The issue here is consent. As a charitable organisation that works tirelessly to support those experiencing psychological difficulties, you will know that one of the biggest issues vulnerable people face is the removal of our autonomy – that we constantly have to battle to retain the right to be in charge of our own care, and our own lives. We often face the perception that, since our minds function in a way that is sometimes problematic, we clearly can’t be trusted to be in charge of ourselves. Nor do we know what is best for us. Nothing could be further from the truth, and such assumptions are incredibly damaging.
It is well-recognised practice that autonomy be encouraged in order to help vulnerable people in the most effective way. This is, perhaps, specifically the case for BPD sufferers, whose complex reactions require a high level of personal engagement and responsibility for the self in order for progress to be made. Vulnerable people need to feel that they are calling the shots with regard to their own wellbeing.
Samaritans Radar sweeps that away, simply by having no ‘opt-in’ facility. While the intention may be noble, your app is very clearly aimed at the helper, not the person that needs help. By launching software that specifically purports to be activated ‘discreetly’, which a user’s followers will have no knowledge of until they receive a communication checking up on them, you are sending the message that vulnerable people cannot be trusted to make their own choices about who to communicate with.
“But, if you tweet something from an unlocked account then it is a public statement!” Very few people use Twitter in the same way that Facebook operates – by connecting only with people you know personally (i.e: “friends”). I have over 1,200 followers, for example. Some of them are involved in mental health – either as service users, or as campaigners – and I have had the pleasure of cultivating wonderfully supportive relationships with those people, which has led to them helping me in particularly low moments. I know I have done the same for others, too. I understand the benefits of such interventions, but there is a vast difference between assistance being offered by a Twitter connection that I trust on a personal level, and a Twitter connection that only followed me last week because they want me to retweet links about their band’s gigs. It is not appropriate for the latter to feel obligated to respond to a ‘worrying’ tweet from me, having installed your app to monitor their own long-time Twitter connections. Providing vulnerable people with the power to control who can monitor their Twitter feed reduces that anxiety.
Which leads me to my second concern – the attitude of responses coming from your organisation toward people, like myself, who disagree with the ‘helper-centred’ nature of this app on a fundamental level. If we are concerned about being ‘monitored’, the solution – suggested by Mr Ferns and others – is to lock our accounts. You are declaring that, after years of using this publicly available micro-blogging site without a problem, I am now required to change my behaviour to accommodate your decision to release an ill-thought-out app. To say that I either accept something that I have not consented to, or lock my account (thereby limiting the usefulness of it in terms of my business) is to curtail my freedom simply because I have a mental illness. You are reducing my choices, which is quite disturbing coming from a charitable organisation. In addition, telling anyone that raises concerns of any kind that they simply don’t understand the way that Twitter works is incredibly patronising and offensive. If anything, the release of this app shows that it is, in fact, the Samaritans that need to brush up on social media applications.
“But what about that one person that might be saved? Surely it’s worth it if one person is saved as a result of someone using Samaritans Radar for the purpose for which it was intended (for, as has been well-documented in discussion in the past 24 hours, there is plenty of scope for it to be abused)?” As I said, Twitter can be an amazing source of mental health support, and having a means to reach out with properly sourced information on how to deal with a crisis situation is very valuable.
What about all the people that now feel compelled to lock their accounts, though – in line with your own advice? Just a cursory glance through the Samaritans Radar hashtag demonstrates clearly the vast number of people that are securing their accounts, or simply not discussing their mental health problems on Twitter anymore. Doesn’t that make this app counterproductive? When previously Twitter was perhaps their only means of expressing their difficulties to a potentially supportive forum, they have been pushed away and shut down.
Previously, I had a chance of seeing one of their distressed tweets and helping. Now, there is no chance of that, because they have stopped talking. Why are those people worthy of dismissal? By continuing to make Samaritans Radar available in its current form, you are essentially sending the message that you are only interested in helping the people that get on board with your new venture. Other vulnerable people – who already feel disenfranchised in society and have now lost their only means of self-expression – are left out in the cold. Wouldn’t it be better to create a tool that helps everybody – not just those that agree with you?
The solution to create an app that is truly helpful to the people that need help – and not just to those that wish to help – is simple. Please take down Samaritans Radar and re-tool it so that it is ‘opt-in’ for people that feel they need it. Let us decide who reaches out to us when we are at our most vulnerable. Then, those that feel safer without monitoring are unaffected by your actions, and those that feel safer with monitoring are catered for. Nothing is more important than protecting our autonomy and not treating us like inexperienced children. The Samaritans may have a long history in this particular arena, but we are the experts in our own care.
Thank you for your time and attention.