Building character in 140 characters

On February 25th 2017, Lily Allen posted a poll to her Twitter followers, asking who they felt more marginalised by, pensioners or Muslims. The poll was a joke, meant to highlight stereotypes towards the Muslim community, however, it became, perhaps predictably, a target for twitter trolls, who were able to steer the ‘conversation’ towards the tragic loss of Allen’s unborn child in 2010. In just one week, 33,000 abusive tweets were directed towards the singer – a concerted trolling attack that caused Allen to abandon twitter.

High profile trolling incidents such as these are increasingly commonplace and, when they affect someone in the public eye, are widely reported in the media. They expose some of the most negative implications of the much-discussed ‘online disinhibition effect’, and paint a picture of a vicious, and immoral online world. Trolling has not always been outright abuse though, it once referred to the comedic art of provoking deserved victims. However, pithy online provocateurs have gradually been replaced by ‘bad trolls’ – like Milo Yiannopolous and Katie Hopkins – who peddle hate only because they can.

Demos is investigating trolling incidents, such as the Lily Allen case, as part of a larger project, support by the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham, looking at the implications of social media use on young people’s ethical behaviour and character development. Through surveys and workshops with 16 to 18 year olds we aim to ascertain how young people respond to hypothetical cyberbullying scenarios. As observers, would they ignore or report abuse of others? Would they join in? Would they even recognise it as abuse? And how do they justify their response?

From the example above it would seem that social media can only encourage negative behaviour, and far from virtuous character traits. However, while the abuse of Lily Allen was widely reported, little was made of the scores of Twitter users who leapt to her defence. One user tweeted: “Appalled by the attacks Lily has to face. Big love to her & all who deal with that kind of spite” and another user tweeted: “Wishing peace and protection to you. Respect”. These are just two of hundreds of messages defending Allen – indicative of what can happen when trolling is countered.

Depicting social media as simply a world of vice and immorality is clearly, then, somewhat of a caricature. It’s perhaps better viewed as a new ethical and moral frontier, in which users encounter new (and old) moral challenges on a regular basis. Clearly, disinhibition has heightened the extent to which people feel free to say terrible things, but social media can also provide a new space to, for example, show compassion or empathy to a friend or a stranger.

Our research is looking to understand how young people can be best equipped to respond positively to the ethical challenges presented by social media. This follows on from our Digital Citizens pilot in 2016, in which we trialled a skills-based approach to online safety teaching. On the basis of the pilot we recommended that the school curriculum should contain some sort of digital citizenship education, providing scenarios and promoting the recognition of propaganda and coercive interaction on social media. Several other groups have echoed this advice – the Children’s Commissioner called for the UK Government to become more involved in children’s use of social media, suggesting the introduction of a mandatory digital citizenship scheme in primary and secondary schools. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety has also recommended that schools consider teaching the facts about sexting, such as the situations in which it may arise, issues regarding legality and the risks or consequences associated with involvement.

Crucially, this isn’t about shutting off young people’s engagement with social media. Exposure to morally ambiguous situations should help children become more practiced at responding appropriately, encouraging habitual reactions, and building character. The key is ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills to approach these situations in the right way.