Adrian Short

Samaritans Radar must close

Update, 2 Nov 2014: We’re asking Twitter to shut down Samaritans Radar because the Samaritans aren’t listening.

I’ll cut to the chase. The Samaritans Radar app has been a disaster for everyone concerned and it must close. Right now. Today. There’s no way forward for it. Just shut the damned thing down and chalk it up as an experiment that failed. Learn the lessons.

Yes, the Samaritans tried to do something to help people in distress. The idea has a grain of plausibility. The project was built in good faith. But – and there’s no polite way to phrase this – it’s not being run in good faith any longer. You can start out with good intentions trying to help people but when they turn around and say that you’re hurting them instead and you carry on doing it in the face of all protests then you’re just showing by your actions that you’re only thinking about yourself.

Twitter is a hugely complex social environment. It’d be wrong to describe it as a unqualified safe space. It’s a place where a significant amount of harrassment and abuse happens. But clearly large numbers of people, including vulnerable people with mental health problems, have found ways to use it that work for them. Perhaps they don’t use their real names, which Twitter permits but other social networks such as Facebook and Google+ prohibit. Maybe they avoid using popular hashtags, or they just keep their conversation in a small group of trusted friends. And of course they may increase or reduce their presence as they feel comfortable. But the key thing here is that the whole setup is finely tuned according to the way Twitter itself operates, how other people on Twitter behave towards them, and on the other circumstances in their lives at the time.

Samaritans Radar changes all that. Even if you think the project is absolutely wonderful, there’s no way to deny that the Samaritans app changes the way Twitter works. And so this finely tuned structure that at the best of times only works acceptably some of the time for people with mental health problems suddenly collapses. The rules of the game are different. Posting tweets – any tweets, not just those that might suggest the person is in need of help – has different consequences because everything is potentially being collected and monitored. Samaritans Radar also changes the relationship between people and they people who follow them, as those followers may now be people colluding in a surviellance and intervention system that’s unacceptable. People using Twitter have no way of knowing whose using Samaritans Radar in this way as the fact that someone’s being monitored isn’t disclosed to the subject of the surveillance. Relationships built on trust, or even simple neutrality, now become covert, deceitful and potentially antagonistic. The opacity of the system, the fact that it’s something that’s being done to people who may have problems rather than being done with them, creates further uncertainty and anxiety.

And the result is very clear: Vulnerable people are being driven away from Twitter and away from friends and sources of support. The #SamaritansRadar hashtag is full of people saying that they’re leaving Twitter or locking their accounts, at least until Samaritans Radar closes. Other people talk about having to watch what they say, of having to censor themselves to avoid triggering an unwelcome and intrusive intervention. People are saying that Samaritans Radar violates their autonomy – it limits their scope for action – and also that it violates their consent – they were never asked if they wanted to be part of this. And so an app that tries to bring people together actually puts them further apart. An app that tries to reassure people acutally makes them more afraid. Samaritans Radar is effectively a denial of service attack against Twitter for people with mental health problems, and by extension, a destructive force in online mental health communities of support.

The Samaritans response to this has been nothing short of scandalous. It would be bad enough for any organisation with a plausible claim to public legitimacy but absolutely fatal for one based on helping people through listening. The Samaritans may have heard what people have been saying but they haven’t done what people have been asking them to: either shut the whole thing down or at the very least stop monitoring people who haven’t given their explicit consent for this. The Samaritans have set up an opt-out for people who don’t want their data to be collected, which means that the Samaritans are now collecting the online identities of people concerned about having their data collected by the Samaritans. This in itself shifts the privacy and consent problem from one place to another by making the entirely unsupportable assumption that anyone who doesn’t go to the trouble of explicitly opting out and having their data collected as a consequence is implicitly giving consent to surveillance and intrusive intervention as a result of Samaritans Radar’s email alerts. This doesn’t address anyone’s concerns. It’s not even a partial solution, it’s a non solution. And the way in which it has been implemented creates further privacy risks. Twitter users who want to opt out have been asked to send private direct messages to the Samaritans but for many users this doesn’t work and the messages are rejected. So what do these people do? They send public tweets instead, meaning that their concerns and opted-out status are now visible to everyone on Twitter. The spectacle of watching vulnerable people concerned about their privacy having to publicly petition a charity to stop spying on them is nothing short of revolting.

Samaritans Radar has demonstrated that the Samaritans as an organisation doesn’t have the ethics, the decency, the design skills, the social media skills or even the basic common sense to run a complex and sensitive project such as this. The people they’ve set out to help have been hurt. Some people are even saying that they won’t phone the Samaritans when they need help as their trust has fundamentally been broken. There is nothing to be gained by anyone, not by the Samaritans and most especially by not people with mental health problems, by stringing out this disaster any longer. Samaritans Radar should close. Today.

Related: What could possibly go wrong? and Are your public tweets fair game?

31 Oct 2014