The recent case in which a senior politician was named as a paedophile is a symbol of the power of the internet to bring out into the open issues of public concern that would otherwise have been hidden or confined to gossip and innuendo. Few if any of the finger pointers knew him personally, and yet they did what they did. But what were their motives? Was it revenge, or the desire to put information into the public domain, or was it to punish someone/ anyone – this individual being a proxy for some wrong that they heard had been committed? I think it is likely that most posters of this false accusation were not really aware of their motivation or what drove them to collectively libel this individual.
It seems that this is becoming an increasingly worrying trend in the new world of online technology and one that everyone involved in education at whichever level should keep their eyes on. A news item last week reported on the abusive manipulation of vulnerable individuals with eating disorders who use online chat forums by urging their suicide. What is the motivation for individuals in urging others to kill themselves? We can argue that needing to use an eating disorder chat room is an indication of vulnerability. So what motivates a person to abuse another’s vulnerability in this way? Perhaps the anonymity that technology permits is out of step with the social possibilities of the internet.
The use of online discussion forums in health and social care are not new. A quick search can identify numerous examples of online forums and bulletin boards for individuals with a wide range of diagnoses and support needs hosted by reputable organisations and others. The number of postings indicates that they are successful in attracting comment and discussion.
However, there are particular ethical considerations raised by using online forums. They have the potential for blurring of boundaries in relationships where there is contact between individuals who might be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by others who are perceived to be in a position of authority or having some special or extra knowledge.
With the lack of face to face contact and no physical presence the issue of crossing relationship boundaries with individuals seems less likely. However, online forums can still provide the medium in which boundaries are crossed. The nature of online communication invests manipulative participants with power which they can use to exploit others, a risk that has been highlighted with young people with mental health problems.
Adults might also be vulnerable to psychological exploitation. This can be in the form of persistent emotional maltreatment such as conveying the individual is worthless or unloved; that the individual is inadequate or valued only in so far that he or she meets the needs of another person; or that the individual is required to meet expectations that they cannot meet. They can also be threatened, intimidated and egged on to self-harming behaviours.
The usual reasons for impersonal maleficence are often cited: participants who post malicious and dangerous content feel safe in their own anonymity; they are not held responsible and don’t expect to be held accountable for what they do. But anonymity isn’t the driving force behind these abusive acts. The kindest explanation lies in the abuser’s own feelings of disembodiment through lack of a sense of self-worth, which has contaminated their relationships and the way they interact. Can disembodiment be addressed, and can the development of self-awareness be one way to enable these individuals to have a greater sense of their own value and to re-establish healthy relationships? Impersonal malevolence is rare, but for a number or reasons such as: stigma, discrimination and communication support needs, some individuals require assistance in establishing and maintaining their relationships and social networks.
Below is an activity that can be used at diploma level to help learners develop their knowledge and skills around relationships. It can be used to provide evidence for the HSC Diploma in Adult Care Level 2 and Level 3 that takes into account the increasing use of online social networking as a way to establish and maintain relationships among many people today.