I came across a disturbing story last week, particularly for academics in the UK who use social media. A UK academic who blogs and tweets as Plashing Vole reported that a journalist from the Sun on Sunday had contacted him, telling him they were going to run an article about him. It concerned a few anti-government tweets he had made, in one jokingly making a Nazi comparison. An MP was calling for him to be sacked. In the end they didn't run the piece, but it must have been a stressful few days.
This worries me on a number of levels. Firstly, I often encourage academics to establish an online identity, and that part of that identity is to give a bit of themselves, not just bland broadcast. If we are now entering a phase when any opinion or joke will be used against you then this advice might be harmful.
Secondly, I think most of us will have a 'there but for the grace of God' moment on reading his account. I am mindful of being offensive in any online communication, but I've made jokes & expressed opinions so if someone really wanted to I'm sure they could construct a negative story about me and use a few carefully selected tweets to prove a case. The same is true for any of us I think – a friend of mine was berated by someone because they tweeted about biscuits during work hours.
But the thing that bothered me most of all was the sense of surveillance and suppression of opinion. The East German secret police used to have people in every workplace reporting to them, and they would drill holes in walls to spy on citizens. Any anti-state sentiment that was expressed would be recorded and that person would find their life difficult, or they'd just be disappeared. The consequence was that no-one would express any dissenting view in public, which was, of course, the aim. It is the same here, it doesn't matter that they didn't run the story, they only need to threaten to often enough to make academics scared of expressing an opinion publicly. And that is a very dangerous society to live in.
The possible saving grace is that I would hope universities are strong enough to stand up to this nonsense, and also, I think it's such a non-story, and would be of so little interest to their readers that it's not a practical policy. But who knows?