The numbers of social work bloggers and tweeters are increasing daily. This is both positive and negative. On the one hand there are some who promote ideologies and views which are inconsistent with social work values and it seems that there is little that can be done about it. It’s a free for all out there online and my concern is the impact of this on service users and public opinion. There have always been those wanting to denigrate social work and if this approach seems to come from within the profession then it gives a powerful message. On the other hand there are those who counter these views and the online world becomes a public battlefield no longer confined to social work journals, books and magazines or subject to peer review or measured academic restraints. Anyone can have a voice and anyone can gather followers, and shout loudly. The messages will be picked up and gloated on by unscrupulous media and those who are certainly not our allies – voices which cruelly feed the backlash against social work. There is, of course, some excellent authentic social work input and the challenge is to sort the wheat from the chaff which involves dedicated research and investigation – online skills largely as yet undeveloped within social work.
Feeding the internet creates an illusion of anonymity. Those for and against the profession make use of false identities and I understand the importance of protection in the work we all do. Social workers of course have the privilege to work with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations but there are some who do not like what we do. I remember removing 5 very young children from a physically violent man only to be hounded by him for some years. He would follow me around filming myself and my family and he would speak on a megaphone outside the town hall about how I would be dead within 3 days. So I do worry about the safety of practitioners hiding behind pseudonyms if they are so naïve as not to realise that it takes about 2 minutes to find out who they are from publicly available information – where they live and work, their qualifications, recreational interests, book preferences, public comments they have made and even their pre-social work history.
Thinking they have well protected anonymity, social media contributors loudly express their opinions thinking they are immune from their employers finding out who they are or service users and their lawyers making a meal out of this self-exposure. I remember being in criminal court when a lawyer accused me of being in a trade union and therefore a troublemaker – it was a crude attempt at reputational damage. This was nothing compared with what can be found out today through online searches. I have repeatedly raised this issue within BASW because speakers are allowed to present at conferences using only their online identity. I am aware of the difficulties raised by this approach as I have been involved in other situations, such as a People’s Tribunal, where many contributors were known, and knew each other, only as their twitter handle. It caused chaos because of the lack of accountability and the expectation for everyone to trust each other despite having no idea at all who they were.
I am not a prolific blogger and don’t have many hits on my website which spikes mainly after I’ve given a lecture or been in the mainstream media. The response varies depending on the subject – between 200 and 3000 hits. It’s not about numbers. It is more important to me to reach 10 people with a specific and genuine interest in the subject matter. I enjoy receiving emails from readers which help to develop my knowledge and networks in a meaningful way. I do not understand why a social work blogger would want to boast about a large following as a supposed proof of high status. Of course, vast numbers of followers are easily bought or self-created and it is very important to question validity and to think whether the numbers actually make sense in terms of how much interest a blog really deserves to attract. Social work students and those newly qualified will need to make judgements about which social worker they decide to follow and safely engage with.
Social workers online are commonly unaware that twitter and facebook can be used in evidence in court, disciplinaries and Health and Care Professions Council complaints, or that employers check out LinkedIn and make Google checks. Social media enables an anonymous writer to hide behind a false identity and opinions become facts very swiftly with little chance of rectifying untruths or achieving redress. I knew an abuse survivor who was so pleased to have various women supporting him during lonely times via twitter. They were kind and caring. He was devastated when he discovered that they were in reality one man who had assumed numerous identities. He felt betrayed. It is ironic that online anonymity is welcomed by some who feel safer communicating with someone they do not know and they share highly personal feelings and experiences – yet there are risks and the to and fro of twitter can be vicious in the extreme. Social media creates a parallel universe which can be all consuming and lead to a driven need to respond instantly to the many conversations. Late at night when defences are down and feelings have a life of their own, it is so easy for mistakes to be made and words typed that are later regretted and deleted – but not before the screenshots have been already captured.
A single individual or organisation may front many different online false identities to promote often dubious causes. Much content is trivial, masking the lack of content or the small amount of ‘tailored for a purpose’ content, providing a flood of memes – soppy animals, trite slogans, landscapes and people’s ‘not so funny’ mishaps are commonplace. The reader can easily then dissociate from distressing topics. Social media lends itself to distraction and fast, non-reflective commentary rather than knowledgeable, in depth debate. It is left to individual responsibility to judge what is authentic and what is fake without the safeguarding protocols related to publication in the reputable print media, journals or academic books.
When engaging with social work social media it is important to question what the political and personal context is. What is the actual motivation of the person behind the chosen anonymous identity or banners which fail to impress, citing cult words like ‘transformation’, ‘innovation’ or ‘leadership’? Behind the verbiage may well hide a person starting a business venture or crowdfunding a project avoiding the usual validation processes. They may be writing on behalf of a private company or political lobbying group and it takes skilled research to identify the organisation behind the person fronting the website.
I acknowledge that just anyone can set up anything these days and attract a lot of attention through clever use of social media and slick branding techniques but once disentangled, there are some very useful and inspiring social work contributions to be found online by thoroughly authentic practitioners and academics. Ultimately they are to be judged by the quality of their online content and by understanding exactly who that person/ organisation is, and their true intention in wishing to exert influence. These online contributions support and welcome reasoned debate, discussion of crucially important subjects and reinforce the basics of social work principles as stated by the International Federation of Social Work. The ethical principles must underline all professional practice and social workers must make sure they do not act in a way which damages the public’s confidence in the profession. The Health and Care Professions Council which regulates social work has published excellent guidance about social work and social media.
It was the Prime Minister, academic and social worker, Clement Atlee who in 1920 said social workers should have a role beyond casework, that they should be pioneers on social reform, social investigators or researchers tracking the results of new policies and legislation and that every social worker is almost certain to be an agitator. His work has been recently and importantly revisited by Jonathan Dickens, Head of Social Work at East Anglia University in a British Journal of Social Work article. There is no better time than now to go back to our roots and re-discover early social work pioneers and their principles.
Social media has been used very positively by social work campaigners. A good example is ‘Together for Children’ which presented a challenge to oppressive government policy and achieved change in the 2016 Children and Social Work Bill by speedily drawing together committed professionals and organisations. The WhiteFlowers campaign drew together hundreds of abuse survivors, supporters and whistleblowers to hold meetings in the House of Commons and influence public policy.
In contrast, other social work blogs have demonised service users describing them in derogatory terms and presenting frightening images of social workers which have rightly upset service users and professionals alike. Others are promoting the highly offensive concept of social workers as superheroes and I was pleased recently to read a well argued critique citing Friere and stating, ‘to label those people as ‘superheroes’ or to suggest that what anyone does in these sectors is heroic, serves only to intensify oppression or maintain the status’. The ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’ by Friere, is of high relevance to social workers today. He states, ‘This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” Social work is definitely not a comic book parody. A survivor who trained social workers with me used to say that humility and humanity are the most important qualities he required of a social worker. Amanda Thorpe, in a chapter entitled ‘the use of power in social work practice’ , addresses brilliantly the appropriate use of power in social work distinguishing between ‘power over’, ‘power with’ and ‘power to’. It is certainly vital for social workers to know how to use authority wisely but never, never to flaunt it and boast about it. I am not going to link to the superhero social work websites because I despise them.
I was advised by the police not to engage with twitter or facebook to protect myself from threats. For a while, abusive individuals were trying to prevent me from public speaking, things got difficult and I needed police protection. The police explained to me that they have little power over twitter content. My local police officer explained that he was not allowed to access the internet and so could not examine the evidence and I had to print it all out hardcopy. So what can be done? There are some who screenshot everything as ammunition for future online battles and others who mistakenly imagine that if they delete something it is gone forever. Some colleagues sent me volumes of twitter content they had screenshot on my behalf in order to support my efforts to challenge those trying to harm me.
Twitter, Facebook and blogs become a battleground – one with which I cannot engage. I just have to wait for the material to lose its prominence in timelines and get lost among prolific rants. As a social work activist, I have had an overwhelmingly positive response from all political dimensions of the media over 30 years. The media has supported much of my work to protect children and I have described this in a journal article. My public critics have mainly been renowned, self-confessed paedophiles or those promoting pro-paedophile views. However, unusually, one social work blogger and small business enterprise, in relation to my blog, posted an unpleasant comment about me which remains online linked to my website. There is nothing that can be done. My polite requests asking for withdrawal of the comment just exacerbated the situation. With the power of the internet he has the last word. Many people have accessed my website in the context of this comment and I have to hope they read my work, learn about my contribution to social work and reflect carefully on his perspective of me.
I’ve been a social worker for 40 years. I’ve learnt how to survive, through social activism, being in a trade union, having strong team support and campaigning with service users and rights organisations. It is this sense of purpose which has sustained me but my courage has mainly come from the people I’ve had the privilege to meet in person along the way. When people contact me through social media even if using false names –I will almost always make a point of meeting them in person and learning their true identity. This is essential to protect myself. Genuine people who wish to meet me have no difficulty at all with this. This approach has helped me to develop some wonderful professional connections and to meet people I would otherwise probably not have met. Some of us who found each other online now meet regularly in person. Contact can be slowly explored until it feels safe on both sides to make more personal contact.
As a social worker, I have entered worlds which most people never see or even deny exist. Social media can be an effective way for social workers to extend their networks and share knowledge about oppression, inequality and misuse of power. Information came to me via social media about some of the murders of children in Islington and about child abusers. Small pieces of the big jigsaw that enabled me to make sense of allegations of abuse that had been drawn to my attention over the years. Tentative comments are made, sometimes directly from the public and sometimes via other campaigners and researchers, which I then test out and evaluate. There is an extensive and dedicated online network working round the clock to protect children. It is too easy to lose sense of time and find myself at all hours checking out new information alongside other researchers as a picture begins to emerge of connections between key people in organised abuse networks. I take my hat off to the intrepid online twitterati who try and keep it a safe place for the rest of us by exposing and challenging those who misuse social media to harm or abuse others.
I’ve taken a lot of risks through bearing witness as a social worker to situations of oppression in mental health social work, generic work, community action, child protection and teaching – in every area I’ve worked in I have witnessed terrible things. I wanted to do something useful, whether at a casework, groupwork or community work level, as a response to what I was witnessing. Social media is of interest to me as one means of continuing this work.
Social work is a privilege. We enter people’s lives at times when they are most vulnerable and disadvantaged. We make deep bonds with individuals, groups, communities and colleagues – bonds difficult to explain to those who do not share in that experience. As a newly qualified social worker I certainly gained much knowledge from my academic tutor at the London School of Economics. George Goetschius convened a module on community activism based on the work of Saul Alinsky. However, the person who had most influence on my life at the time was a service user. In 1972, I was involved in setting up the Mental Patients Union (MPU). Here is a photograph from 3rd September 1973 in the Sunday Times with myself on the right.
Through the MPU, I met the late Eric Irwin.
Born in 1924, he was incarcerated in seventeen psychiatric institutions in Ireland, Australia and England. He had experienced ECT when it caused epileptic fits and his own back was damaged. His balance was poor and I learnt that he had to at all times have his cigarette lighter which was the only possession he had during his time in hospitals. If he mislaid it he would become anxious and couldn’t do anything until it had been located. In solitary confinement he self-educated – reading philosophy, psychology and political theory. I still have some of his beautiful poetry and he taught me a great deal in my early social work years guiding my reading from one text to another on writers such as Bertrand Russell, Rosa Luxemburg, Ronnie Laing and Mary Barnes – often lending me books and pamphlets from his own library. The history of the MPU is accurately documented by Helen Spandler in her book Asylum to Action and by Andrew Roberts, on his website Andrew was a founder of MPU and currently co-ordinates the London Survivor’s History Group.
I wonder if Eric was alive if he would tweet or blog? I think he might. He would be the first to embrace new ideas and ways of communication. I doubt he would have called himself anything other than his real name and if there was an @EricIrwin or an EricIrwin blog I can only imagine how inspiring it would be but I would still have gone many miles out of my way to meet him in person and how much knowledge, learning and friendship I would have surely missed if I hadn’t.