Open media and the new Stasi
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?
Hi. I’m Plashing Vole, the academic who was targeted by the Sun on Sunday. They didn’t run the story last week, but there’s an outside chance that they’ll use it at some point in the future.
For me, one of the salient points of the whole affair was the sheer inequality of scale. I think of the Sun’s defence of press freedom, and the number of times they’ve used that to make tasteless, even abusive comments about public figures on a daily basis – and yet they’ve picked up on a very, very obscure person, gone to an MP from 250 miles away and constructed a story. Clearly free speech is reserved for them, rather than as a general principle.
Like you, I don’t think there’s any news value in this at all: I can’t think that the Sun’s readers will be at all interested in this: it just fills space while extending the Conservative discourse about academics being subversives. Luckily, my university was very supportive. They’re aware that my real name and institution never appear on my Twitter feed or blog, and that I’ve never claimed to speak for the university, so they told the paper that it didn’t see why it should comment. That the newspaper and Tory MP should involve my employer and political party really bothered me: it’s more than confected outrage, it’s McCarthyite.
I completely agree that academics should engage in social media and do so with character. Institutional versions are often bland and pointless. On my blog, I talk about news, politics, pop culture and literature, as well as teaching and my life as an academic and union rep. Most of this is quite boring for passers-by and my readership is quite low, but that’s OK. Now that I know that hostile national newspapers are collecting this stuff, I might find myself unconsciously censoring myself, which is the antithesis of why I became an academic.
Thanks for your piece – you highlighted the issues much better than I did!
I’m not sure I share your optimism about universities standing up to political pressure. PV’s reference to ‘support’ isn’t really enough; they don’t have to just ‘stick up for the victim’, but also attack the offender.
Luckily, this is a storm in a… thimble. But since HE is so mired in finances now, political pressure can combine with financial pressure to spawn – at the least – self-censorship. Society has to grow up about SN.