Samaritans app designed to help Twitter users in distress is met with mixed opinions


You may, or may not, have heard about the new Samaritans Radar app (unsurprisingly introduced by the Samaritans!). Incase you are not already aware, this is an online application which you can choose to activate for your Twitter account. Once activated, the application will send you email alerts if any of the users you follow on Twitter sound distressed, for example tweeting about needing help or feeling depressed or suicidal. It’s clear to see what The Samaritans are aiming to achieve with this app, i.e., to introduce an online intervention which can identify potentially vulnerable individuals and alert their friends/family/connections if they appear to be in distress. The app tagline sums this up nicely:

Turn your social net into a safety net

It should not go unrecognised that the Samaritans are trying to achieve something admiral by introducing an app designed to help alert others.

So what is the problem?
Well the app has raised eyebrows over issues surrounding privacy – more specifically that Twitter users can track other users’ tweets without the tracked user(s) even being aware of this. Let’s get one thing straight, users do not enter specific usernames to track, instead the app automatically tracks every user that the user follows. However, this does mean that strangers and/or users who you do not want to be tracking your tweets, particularly at times of distress, can easily do so.

It should be clarified that the app only tracks publicly accessible tweets, i.e., not those from users who have their account set to private. Therefore the information that the app is alerting users to, is out there in the public domain anyway. So what difference does the app make? Well, some users are arguing that the app provides cyberbullies with the perfect tool to identify when their victims are feeling their lowest and most vulnerable – potentially helping bullies to increase the negative impact they have upon the victim by targeting their bullying at times when the victim is particularly vulnerable (whether deliberately using the app in this manner or due to being ‘prompted’ by the app alert). Although arguably bullies intent on targeting a specific victim may be likely to check or manually monitor the victim’s tweets anyway, this application could make this task easier by allowing the bully to simply wait until the application alerts them to their victims vulnerability.

Some critics are also concerned that the application may appear to infer judgements about users’ psychological health to other users. However, I have received a copy of the confirmation email received by users who sign up to the service and it appears to be worded quite well:

Thank you for activating Samaritans Radar. Now that’s done, just keep an eye out for any alerts you may receive. Remember we built Samaritans Radar because we know that more people are using social media to talk about how they are feeling, sometimes in the hope that someone will reach out.

If someone you follow posts something that may indicate that they are struggling, Samaritans Radar will send you and email for you to check out their post. If you are concerned, the email will offer you guidance on what to do next”

Although this does use the term ‘struggling’ they do say that the post may indicate that a user is struggling, and they also say they are only emailing as a prompt to check that everything seems okay. Of course, what really matters is how the vast majority of users interpret this. Will users automatically leap to the assumption that their friends/family/colleagues/acquaintances have psychological or mental ‘issues’ if they receive an alert from them and if so what impact would that have for the user?

There is an opinion for users to opt out of the service, i.e., to request that their tweets are not tracked but this allegedly requires that they send their details* to the Samaritans which is perhaps something that not all users will be aware of, or they may not wish to share their details.

However there is another potential issue with this intervention, what if it results in users being less likely to use Twitter to express their emotions or concerns due to the fact that they feel like they are could be being tracked? This could potentially have devastating consequences if use of the platform is bringing some positive benefits to the user at a vulnerable time. My own research looks at the use of social media to discuss negative health behaviours, such as eating disorders and self-harm and I would urge anyone who is looking to introduce an intervention not to discount the possibility that there are positive elements to these communities (yes, as well as negatives) and that anything which could disrupt social media use has the potential to have negative consequences in some situations, no matter how good the intention. That said, I will still repeat that this application only tracks publicly accessible tweets and arguably those users who are very concerned over being tracked would be more likely to have a private account. However, many users do tweet about sensitive topics and do still have a public account – do we want to introduce something which may make those users more likely to make their account private and ultimately limit the effectiveness of any future interventions.

So there you have it, my verdict? Well it’s a mixed bag. I can see both sides of the argument. I admire what The Samaritans are aiming to achieve and I believe their heart, and the majority of their thought processes, are in the right place. However, I would argue that perhaps we do not currently know enough about the online environment to introduce an intervention which could potentially have negative consequences if it is not accepted by vulnerable users in the Twitter community and/or if it is used for negative reasons such as cyberbullying. If the service does go ahead, perhaps the opt out option for users needs to be made more easy to access – but does this undermine the value of the service? Possibly, but what if vulnerable users just turn their profiles to private, that could be even worse as friends/family/colleagues/teachers may not even be able to manually check their updates if needed?

All of these various issues have led to some users signing an online survey asking Twitter to stop the application from accessing its API, effectively killing the service.

What are your views and opinions on this app? good or bad or can’t decide? what improvements or changes would you suggest? and can you think of a more suitable or effective intervention?

* (At the time of writing it is not known what details are required, i.e., whether this may just be the user ID however some users may not like to contact the Samaritans at all even if this is the only detail required)


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