Public Benefit and the Digital Echo Chamber

Digital Echo Chamber, recursive phone screens with facebook like symbol. Used to discuss public benfit.

Recently, the School made a decision to end a longstanding commercial arrangement which was, in part, predicated by a rising student roll, potential safeguarding issues and the need to ensure a secure site for all young people within our community. There is an inevitability that such decisions, however justified, may cause a very real sense of hurt and anguish. It would be foolish to ignore the natural sense of hurt that occurs in such circumstances and it is our responsibility to respond with compassion and understanding.

It must have been about six weeks ago that I was made aware of a challenging post on social media which referred to the above mentioned commercial decision. The comments underneath the post evidently reflected and amplified a very real sense of hurt. Nevertheless, it was clear to us that seeking to challenge or counter the inaccurate and inflammatory assertions of those who had written such comments would constitute nothing more than an exercise in futility. A point by point rebuttal would only have resulted in an endless tit-for-tat and prolonged the sense of pain for those who felt wronged.

It was not long before people who were clearly not cognisant of the facts felt that it was their place to wade in with all guns blazing. A number posted comments that were, at best, designed to cause misery and offence. Social media provided a perfect mechanism for achieving this with seeming impunity and without the social awkwardness that would ensue from a face-to-face conversation. Like drone operators sitting in a desert in Nevada, there are those who unleash their payload from the comfort of their armchairs with a mug of Horlicks (or perhaps something stronger) to hand.

This desire to wound was perhaps understandable, and some of the comments quite possibly hit their mark in terms of their intent. I was left imagining just how isolated and alone I would have felt had I been a teenager on the receiving end of comments from, say, my peers or people whom I had once counted as friends. It served to reinforce to me the potential consequences of trolling. It is not difficult to imagine how the rapid proliferation of such messages or comments might prove too much to bear for a teenager who had incurred the disapproval of their peers.

Of course, the best way to deal with abuse of this nature is to ignore it but that is easier said than done. As I watched the comments multiply, my instinct was to respond. Knowing that this would only serve to fuel this online outrage, I resisted. Then, all of a sudden, it just stopped. It did not gradually wind down, rather, it came to an abrupt halt. Perhaps something else had caught the attention of the individuals involved or perhaps their indignation had simply burned itself out.

In this case, it seemed that Rossall as a School was being attacked not just on account of the decision that we had made but because of the fact that we are a private school. The relentless barrage of negative stories about independent schools during the last couple of years has resulted in something of an ‘open season’ and there is a clear expectation that we should serve others – not because it is the decent and moral thing for us to do but because we need to atone for our existence.

There was a clear assumption that we had reached this decision for purely financial reasons; despite the fact that by ending the commercial arrangement we were, of course, losing an additional form of revenue. However, those who read such posts or choose to vent publicly, are usually only privy to one narrative or one version of events. The outrage on display in such circumstances is palpable and magnifies with each additional comment. Capital letters, exclamation marks, generalisations, inaccurate statements and hyperbole are all marshalled to ensure that the reader knows the author is ‘cross’.

I do not intend to elaborate upon the situation itself. Commercial letting arrangements are not the focus of this blog and, in any case, we make ourselves accessible to people should they wish to come and discuss such issues with us directly. Various people suggested to me that we should point out all the ways in which we do support young people locally – whether it is through use of our facilities, means-tested bursaries (just under 18% of total fee income) or through our ongoing support for groups like the Fleetwood Community Trust and other charities.

I doubt that this would have done anything to abate the sense of hurt experienced by those who felt that we had acted unreasonably. In any case, we do those things because we are inspired and motivated to provide support for those facing difficulties or hardship, not because we feel obliged to as an act of penance. Indeed, our programme of public benefit is not there to serve as an apology for our existence and we are proud of who we are and, especially, our children. Our desire to serve our local community is fundamental to our sense of mission and moral purpose. It is the embodiment of the ethos and values of a community that is itself steeped in compassion and empathy.

Consequently, we need to use opportunities such as this to reflect upon how we can communicate decisions more successfully because the decision itself was reasonable enough. We need to put on record our apology to those who feel hurt by the decision. Finally, we need to reflect upon the pernicious impact that social media can exert on the lives of our children. It is very easy to see how such behaviour has the potential to cause devastation to young lives when the object of such invective is a solitary child rather than, say, an organisation or a middle-aged headmaster with an appropriately thick skin.

This is not a criticism of individuals who participate in such streams on social media, more an observation that it can provide a pernicious one-sided mechanism for delivering something akin to the ritualistic shaming of those accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

So often, groupthink takes over and in such circumstances rational debate and kindness are all too easily cast aside. Justified by ‘likes’ the emboldened keyboard warrior sharpens his metaphorical quill and goes in for the kill.

The recent pandemic has shown the extraordinary good that digital media can bring to our lives but we should understand that it also has the potential to cause tremendous harm. It has the potential to entice good people into behaving in a manner which lacks compassion or understanding. A few gentle brushes with this phenomenon has taught me a good deal and for that I am grateful. It is one thing to be reminded of such things at the age of forty four, but quite another to feel the full force of much more serious unpleasantness or abuse at the age of fourteen.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School