Today’s newspaper was riddled with insults and accusations about who ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ various posts on Facebook. To paraphrase, one read ‘that a board member of x [any board or agency or organization] has “liked” or shared social media posts about y [any controversial topic] by z [any controversial figure].’ How could they?
Months ago, for example, I received an email from a neighbour saying she could not believe that I had “liked’ a post by one of my old colleagues. I replied that I found his post to be engaging and stimulating – worth reading, but I did not ‘agree’ with his views.
There are at least two problems with this kind of oversight.
First, to like a post on Facebook does not mean that you agree with it in whole or in part. It could mean that you noticed it, recommended it to others, disagree, or really, it could mean just about anything. For me, a ‘like’ is a general acknowledgement that you had read or have seen the post, as if saying thank you for posting. For example, liking a photo someone posts might simply be a way of saying hello to them. There is no unlike button. Anyone who assumes that a ‘like’ means you agree is simply wrong much if not most of the time.
A parallel example is when Americans or Europeans visit Japan, they often translate the common Japanese response of “Ah So” – short for ā sō desu ka – to mean the speaker agrees, or is saying “yes”. My Japanese friends tell me it essentially means that the speaker ‘understands’, as in ‘ah, I hear you’. Often, in fact, it implies ‘no’ – not ‘yes’, as it is so impolite to say no. [Correct me if I’m wrong.]
So, in a similar way, it is wrong to assume that a ‘like’ means agreement. If everyone understood this, there would be a lot fewer disputes in the newspapers and online. Many more emojis have been added to online media, but I would not count on the greater choice of emoji settling the issue. What does that wink mean?
The second problem is that I wish my friends, neighbours, or Facebook friends would not make assumptions about my beliefs or opinions based only on such a crude signal as whether I like or share a post. It is a type of social pressure or sanction that can have a chilling effect on me and perhaps on other speakers. If I start thinking that I will be judged by what I ‘like’ – not on what I actually say – then I will stop ‘liking’ anything. Better to say nothing than to be misunderstood. I don’t mind it if I am confronted, such as by my neighbour, as then I can explain myself, if I wish to, and thank them for asking. But one can only assume that too many people draw unwarranted conclusions without testing them with you. Did you mean that you agree with that post?
Given the directions of technical advances, in due course, you might know what I look at or read, even if I don’t react to the post. “You ordered that book?’ ‘You looked at that person’s profile?’ So this kind of problem could get far worse.
Let me apologise to you, if you’ve been critical of my – or anyone’s – ‘likes’. But as they say, apologizing does not mean that I am wrong, but that I value your friendship more than proving myself right. By the way, I have very few “friends” in real life, but many “Facebook friends” – they are not the same thing, so should we all try harder to be as aware of online conventions and the meaning of terms used online, just as we try to keep up with the nuances of speech in general?
The press has fostered growing recognition of the balance that politicians must strike between public health and the economy. This is important, but more attention needs to be focused on the balancing acts of individuals – the public at large. Each individual needs to juggle multiple pressures in making choices about staying at home, social distancing, and how to best comply with COVID-19 guidelines. A rational health communication model might suggest that actors need to focus more effort on gaining a consensus across governmental actors and experts and do a better job in communicating the recommendations in more engaging ways that the public will accept. But this assumes that a clear message can be agreed, sent, and well received. Moreover, what if there are rational reasons for the mixed messages and differences in reception?
It has become increasingly understood that many public officials pursue at least dual objectives – achieving the health objectives of protecting the public from the virus and the economic objectives of getting people back to work and the economy growing. Given that multiple actors are pursuing multiple objectives from different levels of expertise and positions in government, it would be difficult indeed to create a single message to communicate to the public. Given the permutations of actors, expertise, timing, and positions across the nations and regions of the UK, it is almost inevitable that many voices speak for governments of the UK with some major and many subtle differences in messaging. They are not always in sync with expert advice, which also varies across experts and overtime.
At the receiving end, many among the public may not listen or view governmental instructions or announcements or follow news and social media about them. Still others might follow these messages but not fully understand them – feeling confused. And even among those who receive and understand governmental advice, too many fail to comply or follow the recommendations of the experts.
It is possible to imagine everyone among the public is in the same boat – all wanting to avoid the COVID-19 virus and anxious to get the latest and best information from the government’s health experts. However, the public includes a diverse set of actors, whose behaviour is likely to be shaped and constrained by their:
Health: young, healthy individuals are likely to be less concerned about the virus than older people with underlying medical conditions;
Employment: highly paid information workers, who can work at home, are likely to be less worried about the economic consequences of the virus than those who work in personal services for low wages;
Finances: households financially able to ride out the pandemic versus those with few slack resources, including the homeless;
Household: a large family in a small household may find it more difficult to stay at home, or consider a family distributed across multiple households;
Social Networks: college students in fraternities or dormitories are likely to feel social pressure to socialize more than retired seniors living alone;
Geography: families living in the most densely populated areas, such as in high-rise apartments, and dependent on public transit, are likely to be less able to socially distance than are rural or suburban residents who can drive for work or to shop.
These are only a few of the many ways the audience is quite heterogeneous, but they illustrate why it may be difficult for one message to reach an audience who are all as deeply concerned about COVID-19 and equally able to act as a collective. Public communication strategy needs to incorporate the many motivations and constraints that lead to failures of access, understanding or compliance.
I am encouraged by some efforts to empirically understand the public in the time of COVID-19. In the UK, Ofcom has followed public viewing of different media and health messages. And a study of ‘communicating the pandemic‘ at Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which I have offered some advice, is looking at how COVID-19 messages are received, how well they are understood, and to what degree individuals comply with government guidance. Studies like that at Leeds could help us move away from an overly simplistic, too homogeneous, overly rational model of the public to an understanding of how a heterogeneous public balances conflicting pressures on their lives as they seek to manage exposure to this virus. Such an understanding should help in communicating guidance effectively in the times of COVID-19 threats.
More information on the Leeds University AHRC study on ‘Communicating the Pandemic’ can be found here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the Internet and related social media and digital technologies to the forefront of societies across the globe. Whether in supporting social distancing, working at home, or online courses, people are increasingly dependent on online media for everyday life and work. If you are teaching courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, and life or work in the digital age, you might want to consider a reader that covers many of the key technical and social issues.
Please take a look at the contents of the 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019), which is available in paperback and electronic editions. Information about the book is available online here.
Whether you are considering readings for your Fall/Autumn courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media, you may find this book of value. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media.
In addition to Manuel Castells and Vint Cerf along with the editors, our contributors include: Maria Bada, Grant Blank, Samantha Bradshaw, David Bray, Antonio A. Casilli, Sadie Creese, Matthew David, Laura DeNardis, Martin Dittus, Elizabeth Dubois, Laleah Fernandez, Sandra González-Bailón, Scott Hale, Eszter Hargittai, Philip N. Howard, Peter John, Silvia Majó Vázquez, Helen Margetts, Marina Micheli, Christopher Millard, Lisa Nakamura, Victoria Nash, Gina Neff, Eli Noam, Sanna Ojanperä, Julian Posada, Anabel Quan-Hasse, Jack Linchuan, Lee Raine, Bianca Reisdorf, Ralph Schroeder, Limor Shifman, Ruth Shillair, Greg Taylor, Hua Wang, Barry Wellman, and Renwen Zhang. Together, these authors offer one of the most useful and engaging collections on the social aspects of the Internet and related digital media available for teaching.
Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.
For decades I have been concerned over the fragility of information and whether ephemerality or the transitory nature of information and communication is just an inevitable feature of the digital age. I therefore frequently look back at a talk I gave on the Internet to a conference of historians held in Oxford in the early 2000s. Given that I was speaking to historians, at a time when I was the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute, one key theme of my talk concerned the major ways in which content on the Web was unlikely to be preserved. The Internet community did not have adequate plans and strategies for preserving the Internet, Web and related online content. I thought they would be engaged – if not frightened – by a shift of content to online media when it might mean losing much of our history with respect to data, documents, letters, and more.
My audience seemed interested but unmoved. A historian from the audience chatted with me after the talk to explain that this is not new. Historians have always worked in piecing together history from letters found in a shoebox stored in an attic, tomb stones, and so on – not from systematically recorded archives, even though fragments of such records exist in many libraries, museums, and archives. This is nothing new to efforts aimed at writing or reconstructing history.
This attitude frightened me even more. From my perspective, perhaps the historians had not seen anything yet. And I am continually reminded of this problem. Of course, there have been brilliant efforts to preserve online, digital content, such as the ‘Way Back Machine’, an initiative of the Internet Archive,[i] which indicates it has saved over 446 billion web pages. Yet the archive and its Way Back Machine have become a subscription service and have dropped out of the limelight they shared in the early days of the Web. The archive is also being limited by concerns over copyright that are leading them to reduce valuable services, such as their digital library.[ii]
But a recent and more personal experience brought all of this to the forefront of my thinking. I always print to save a hard copy of anything of significance (to me) that I write. That may seem quaint, but time and again, it has saved me from losing work that was stored on out of date media, such as floppy discs, or failing journals. I recently wanted to share a copy of a piece I did for a journal of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), written in 1994, when I was director of an ESRC programme. This time my system failed me and I could not find it in my files.
This was a short piece that the ESRC published in one of its journals called Social Sciences. Being a social scientist, my article focused on the problematic mindset of social scientists regarding outreach (Dutton 1994). Too often, I argued, a (social) scientist thought they were through with outreach once they published an article. The way I put it was that many social scientists believed in sort of a ‘trickle-down’ theory of outreach. Once their work was published, the findings and their implications will eventually trickle down to those who might benefit from their insights.
Today, all disciplines of the sciences are far more focused on outreach and the impact of research. Many research assessment exercises require evidence of the impact of research as a basis for assessment. And individual academics, research units, departments and universities are becoming almost too focused on getting the word out to the world about their research and related achievements. Outreach has become a major aspect of contemporary academic and not-for-profit research enterprises. There is even an Association for Academic Outreach.[iii] One only needs to reflect on the innovative and competitive race to a vaccine for COVID-19, where at least 75 candidate vaccines are in preclinical or clinical evaluation[iv], to see how robust and important outreach has become. Nevertheless, outreach does not necessarily translate into preservation of academic work.
So – lo and behold – I could not find a copy of my piece on ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’. I recall seeing it in my files, but given moves back and forth across the Atlantic, it had vanished without a trace. I searched online for it, and found my books and articles that referenced it, but no copy of the article. I tried the Way Back Machine, but it was not on the Web, as the journal Social Sciences in those days did not put its publication online. I wrote the ESRC, as they might have an archive of their journal. They kindly replied that they not only did not have a copy of the article (from that far back), but, more surprisingly, they did not even have a copy of Social Sciences in their archives. So, 1994 is such ancient history that even revered institutions like the ESRC do not keep copies of their publications. [A former student read this blog and sent me a photocopy, which I used to create a new version of my little viewpoint piece from a quarter-century earlier.]
Well, this little personal experience reminded me of my practice of keeping copies and reinforced the obvious conclusion that I need to preserve my own work, as I had tried to do, and do a more consistent job of it in the process! The toppling of real, analogue statues across the world selfishly reminded me of the need to preserve my own far less significant – if not insignificant – historical record and not to count on anyone else doing this for me.
So, preserve your own work and don’t rely on the Internet, Web, big data, or any other person to save your work. Take it from C. Wright Mills (1952), any academic should devote considerable time to their files. While Mills argued that maintaining one’s files was a central aspect of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, even he did not focus on their preservation.
That said, if anyone has a copy of ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’, name your price. 😉
Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it.
Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face.
However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off.
With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks.
Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff.
The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups.
Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be.
I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question.
*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2.
**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June:
*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons).
****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.
Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research.
List of Contributors:
Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University; Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, with so many organizations and activities moving online, I’ve seen a remarkable push to ‘professionalize’ [for want of a better word] everything online. You might think that is a good thing, but to me, it is undermining, if not destroying, the free and open culture of the Internet. For example, I can sit down and draft a blog and post it in seconds without fear with the hope that a few people besides myself might enjoy it. It’s fun to share ideas and issues.
Increasingly I hear colleagues talking about doing an event online in a more ‘professional’ way. They want high production value, even though they are shooting a talk, not a major motion picture, or an interview for a major news channel. They need all the organisational trappings, corporate logos, and branding down to the right font.
Of course, I whine, protest, and argue that it is okay to relax a bit online – it can be more ‘Internety’ and that is fine – that is what is special about the Internet and social media. But that does not translate well for those trying to move their professional organizations, meetings, marketing, outreach, courses, and more onto the Internet – and they are bulldozing the culture of the Internet as they do.
I also see the consequences of this transition in my inbox. Email is increasingly dominated by messages from institutions, organizations, campaigns, candidates, and news organizations dressed in all their corporate style guides. Instead of a serious letter sent by snail mail on corporate letterhead, I get more emails with the image of a serious letter on corporate letterhead attached. It is like telemarketing has moved onto the Internet big time, giving me so much to delete before reading.
This invasion of professionalism into all the nooks and crannies of the Internet brings to mind the late John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence. Every year I gain more respect for his vision in his 1996 ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, which you can read here: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence If he were alive today, he would be so disappointed.
So much has been said about how online chats, email and conferencing are filling the void left by social distancing, I thought it would be worth sending a word of caution.
Communication online is not a real substitute for person-to-person face-to-face communication. It is most often a complement. That is, people generally communicate online with those they communicate with offline. It reinforces face-to-face communication. For example, when you worry that your kids come home from school and spend all their time online with virtual friends, you are probably wrong. They are most likely continuing conversations with kids they talk to at school. So old fears about people being online too much leading to social isolation, are usually overblown. The most connected individuals online tend to be the most connected off-line.
Another example is from work. In the 1970s, communication engineers pushed teleconferencing and video conferencing as a substitute for travel. It was more efficient and environmentally friendly, so why travel to exchange information. It did not work. Instead of what Jack Nilles and his colleagues* called T3, ‘telecommunication-transportation-tradeoffs’, researchers found telecommunication enhanced travel – you would communicate online with people you were going to meet and then communicate after you meet. Telecommunication was a complement, not a substitute.
Of course, people meet new people online, most obviously through the use of online dating or social media, and this is very significant. It reconfigures who you know, not simply how often you communicate with them.** You can extend networks online with individuals who share your interests, for example. The frequent point is where else would you meet others interested in extreme ironing. However, most online communication is with those you speak to in everyday life and work.
The combination of roles attributed to online media are powerful in reinforcing and extending social networks. But in the wake of the pandemic and social distancing, what will be the effect on online social networks? Will social media simply fill the void and compensate for the loss of face-to-face communication? Think of how Zoom, used for video communication among distributed groups, has grown from 10 million to 300 million users in a matter of weeks. So maybe, but I have my doubts.
Depending on how long social distancing continues, I expect that online communication will continue to follow and reinforce offline communication. That is, it will shrink and become far more local. That is what the empirical relationship between on- and off-line communication would tell me. But what about personal experience?
In the short term, I see more of my neighbors, as I clap for the NHS, or walk my dog, or exercise in my neighborhood. And I am more often online with neighbors, such as in a WhatsApp group to ensure that anyone in need of food or other help can get help from a neighbor. Already, my local community has become more important online.
But online, I can see my overall social network becoming less vibrant. It is proportionately filled more with advertising, political campaign messages, and government alerts, and less by personal messages from friends. Having moved several times during my career, I can watch my online network diminishing with those from the place I’ve left and growing from the place to which I’ve moved. Geography matters in part because it reduces off-line communication.
Maybe I am wrong. Times and contexts change such that telecommunication might become a substitute rather than a complement to travel, but I don’t see evidence yet. That said, my bottom line is not to be pessimistic, but also not to be complacent about your social networks.
This may only be a message to myself but think about it. You may well need to be proactive and serious about keeping in touch with friends and family in order to keep your network vital to your life and work. If you let it move with the comings and goings of emails and conference calls, your online life is likely to become less meaningful and vibrant. Social isolation will translate to more online isolation, unless you actively work to ensure this does not happen. You may be communicating more with friends online early in this period of social distancing, but that will pass unless you make a concerted and sustained effort.
*Nilles, J., Carlson, F. R. , Jr., Gray, P., and Hanneman, G. J. (1976), The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
**Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also, Dutton, W. H. (2005), ‘Continuity or Transformation? Pp. 13-24 in Dutton, W. H., Kahin, B., O’Callaghan, R., and Wyckoff, A. W. (eds), Transforming Enterprise: The Economic and Social Implications of Information Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
by Bill Dutton and Arnau Erola based on their discussions with Louise Axon, Mary Bispham, Patricia Esteve-Gonzalez, and Marcel Stolz
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, schools and universities across the globe have moved to online education as a substitute rather than a complement for campus-based instruction. While this mode of online learning may be time-limited and is expected to return to campuses and classroom settings once the Covid-19 outbreak subsides, this period could also be an important watershed for the future of education. Put simply, with thousands of courses and classrooms going online, this could usher in key innovations in the technologies and practices of teaching and learning online in ways that change the future of education.
However, the success of this venture in online learning could be undermined by a variety of challenges. With dramatic moves to online education and a greater reliance on audio, video and Web conferencing systems, like Zoom, Webex and Skype, have come unexpected challenges. One particular challenge that has risen in prominence is efforts of malicious users to sabotage classrooms and discussions, such as by what has been called Zoom-bombing (Zoombombing). Some have defined it as ‘gate-crashing tactics during public video conference calls’, that often entail the ‘flooding of Zoom calls with disturbing images’. There are a growing number of examples of courses and meetings that have been bombed in such ways. It seems that most ‘Zoombombers’ join illegitimately, by somehow gaining access to the meeting or classroom details. But a student who is actually enrolled in a class could create similar problems. In either case, it is clear that zoom-bombing has become an issue for schools and universities, threatening to undermine the vitality of their teaching and relationships with faculty, students, and alumni of their institutions.
We are involved in research on cybersecurity, and see this as one example in the educational domain, of how central cybersecurity initiatives can be to successfully using the Internet and related social media. We also believe that this problem of the digital gate-crasher and related issues of malicious users can be addressed effectively by a number of actors. As you will see, it is in part, but not only, a cybersecurity problem. It involves training in the use of online media, awareness of risks, and a respect for the civility of discussion in the classroom, meetings, and online discussions. Unfortunately, given how abrupt the shift to online learning has been, given efforts to protect the health of students, staff, faculty, and their networks, there has not been sufficient time to inform and train all faculty and students in the use of what is, to many, a new media. Nor has there been time to explain the benefits as well as the risks, intended and unintended, such as is the case with digital gate-crashers.
Not a New Phenomenon
From the earliest years of computer-based conferencing systems, issues have arisen over productively managing and leading discussion online. One to many lectures by instructors have been refined dramatically over the years enabling even commercially viable initiatives in online education, such as Ted Talks, which actually began in the early 1980s and have been refined since, as well as live lectures, provided by many schools for at home students.
But the larger promise of online learning is the technical facility for interaction one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many. An early, pioneering computer-mediated conferencing system, called ‘The Emergency Management Information System and Reference Index’ (EMISARI) led to one of the first academic studies of the issues involved in what was called ‘computerized conferencing’ in the mid-1970s (Hiltz and Turoff 1978). Since the 1970s, many have studied the effective use of the Internet and related social and digital media in online learning. It would be impossible to review this work here, but suffice it to say, problems with the classroom, and online learning have a long and studied history that can inform and address the issues raised by these new digital gate-crashers.
Actors and Actions
This is not simply a problem for an administrator, or a teacher, as online courses and meetings involve a wide array of actors, each of which have particular as well as some shared responsibilities. Here we identify some of the most central actors and some of the actions they can take to address malicious actors in education’s cyberspace.
There are different issues facing different actors in online education. Initially, we focus on the faculty (generally the conference host) side, providing guidance on essential actions that can be taken to diminish the risks of zoom-bombing the future of education. We will then turn to other actors, including students and administrators.
Authentication: as far as possible, limit the connection to specific users by only allowing users authenticated with specific credentials, having a valid and unique link, or possessing an access code. Ideally, many want courses to be open to visitors, but the risks of this are apparent unless the moderator is able to eject malicious users, as discussed below. A pre-registration process for attendees (e.g. via an online ticketing system) could help limit the risk of “trolls” joining while keeping an event open to visitors.
Authorization: limit the technical facilities to which the students or participants in any meeting have access. Keep to the minimum required for the class session. That is, in most circumstances, the instructor should restrict file sharing, chat access, mic holding or video broadcasting if they do not need to use these in the session. This does not prevent students from using chat (interacting with other students) over other media, but it limits disruption of the class. The need to access these resources varies largely depending on the type of classroom, and it is the responsibility of the instructor or host to grant the permissions required.
Monitoring: careful monitoring of the connected participants can help avoid unauthorized connections – the gatecrashers, so the course lead should have access to the list of participants and monitor it routinely. In some cases, virtual classrooms can be locked when no more participants are allowed. (See the last bullet point with respect to stolen accounts.)
Moderation: in the same way that participants are monitored, their participation in the form of text, voice, video or shared links or files, should be reviewed. This can be a tedious task, particularly with a large class, but it is an advantage of online courses that instructors can monitor student participation, comments, and gain a better sense of their engagement. That said, it can take some time and it might not be possible during the class.
Policies: Each institution should have adequate policies and reporting mechanisms to deal with offensive, violent and threatening behaviour in the classroom, real or virtual. Actions or words that are judged offensive, or otherwise toxic language, should not necessarily exclude a student’s opinions from a class discussion, but the students should be aware of and try to abide by the institution’s standards and policies. It is also helpful if student participants have the facility to report offensive posts, which instructors can then review, delete or discuss with the individual(s) posting them.
Procedures: procedures need to be in place to deal in a timely manner (quickly) with stolen credentials and participants behaving irresponsibly. That could involve removing classroom access for an offending user and their loss of authorization to the specific credentials, as well as processes for generating new ones in case they are needed.
The above recommendations provide general guidance in securing online classrooms without any specifics on the technology used. Some platforms such as Zoom, have published their own guidelines for the administrators of online educational initiatives. But here it is useful to identify some of the responsibilities of other actors.
Students need to understand how the principles of behaviour in the classroom translate into the online, virtual classroom. The Internet is not a ‘Wild West, and the rules and etiquette of the classroom need to be followed for effective and productive use of everyone’s time. Students should have the ability to express their opinions and interpretations of course material, but this would be impossible without following rules of appropriate behaviour and what might be called ‘rules of order’, such as raising your hand, which can be done in the virtual classroom (Dutton 1996). Also, just as it would be wrong to give one’s library card to another person, when credentials or links are provided for enabling authentic students to join a class, it is the student’s responsibility to keep these links to themselves, and not share with individuals not legitimately enrolled. These issues need to be discussed with students and possibly linked to the syllabus of any online course.
Administrators and top managers also have a responsibility to ensure that faculty and students have access to training on the technologies and best practices of online learning. It is still the case that some students are better equipped in the online setting than their instructors, but instructors can no longer simply avoid the Internet. It is their responsibility to learn how to manage their classroom, and not blame the technology, but it is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that appropriate training is available to those who need it. Finally, administrations need to ensure that IT staff expertise is as accessible as possible to any instructor that needs assistance with managing their online offerings.
Points of Conclusion and Discussion
On Zoom, and other online learning platforms, instructors may well have more rather than less control of participation in the classroom, even if virtual, such as in easily excluding or muting a participant, but that has its added responsibilities. For example, the classroom is generally viewed as a private space for the instructors and students to interact and learn through candid and open communication about the topics of a course. Some level of toxicity, for example, should not justify expelling a participant. However, this is a serious judgement call for the instructor. Balancing the concerns over freedom of expression, ethical conduct, and a healthy learning environment is a challenge for administrators, students and teachers, but approaches such as those highlighted above are available to manage lectures and discussions in the online environment. Zoom-bombing can be addressed without diminishing online educational initiatives.
We would greatly welcome your comments or criticisms in addressing this problem.
Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Network Rules of Order: Regulating Speech in Public Electronic Fora,’ Media, Culture, and Society, 18 (2), 269-90.
Hiltz, S. R., and Turoff, M. (1978), The Network Nation: Human Communication via Comptuer. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing.
In 1994, I helped organize a forum for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) on what we called ‘ICT disasters’. We described and compared three cases, including the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes, a US warship patrolling the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on the plane. It was incorrectly identified as an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship, when in fact it was a civilian flight that was ascending. We concluded it was an information disaster in that available information was not correctly communicated, interpreted and acted on in time to prevent this accident and developed explanations for how this was able to occur.
I dare not suggest whether or not the downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 is comparable to the disaster of Iran Flight 655 or other civilian flight disasters. The dynamics leading to these two events are undoubtedly very different indeed. However, I do believe this latest disaster in Iran is a case that is worthy of study in ways that will go well beyond assigning blame to particular nations or actors.
There is a need to understand the social, organizational, and technological dynamics of these disasters as a means for improving policy and practice in the specific areas in which they are embedded, but also to learn lessons that could be informative for areas far removed from airline safety and defense. For example, our case study of Iran Flight 655 was studied along with two other case studies in entirely different areas, one involving London ambulance dispatching, and another the London Stock Exchange. The common denominator was the extreme circumstances that were involved in each incident that led them to be perceived as disasters.
By studying extreme cases of information disasters, it might be possible to provide new insights and lessons that are applicable to more routine information failures that occur in organizations and society. Such disasters might help shape safer digital socio-technical outcomes.
If you are interested, let me suggest these readings on the Flight 655 disaster case study and how such cases can be explored for broader lessons, include:
Rochlin, G. I (1991), ‘Iran Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers).
Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University).
Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), Computer Power and Human Limits, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies — Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.