Trigger warning: suicide
Today the Samaritans announced the release of a new, bespoke app called Samaritans Radar. This will email people when someone they follow on Twitter is discussing depression, suicidal thoughts or similar key words. Their website states “Our App searches for specific words and phrases that may indicate someone is struggling to cope and alerts you via email if you are following that person on Twitter. Radar will then offer you guidance on what to do next.”.
I have no doubt that Radar is well-intentioned but it has caused a fair bit of upset in the mental health community. There are numerous reasons for this disquiet, not least that amongst several different press releases there isn’t one aimed at mental health service users (ie those of us who are actually mentally ill).
For me, there is a difference between someone encountering a distressed tweet and responding, and someone who is actively monitoring you for such tweets. The latter feels invasive and intrusive. It’s not dissimilar to the contrast between bumping into a friend in the high street, and following that friend down the high street so you can engineer an encounter. There is also a risk that this app could be used to target vulnerable individuals; I have at least one friend who is outspoken about her mental illness and receives all kinds of abuse as a result, even (sometimes especially) when she is in crisis. What a boon this app is for people like her abusers!
Another objection I have is that I, as the potential subject of this app, have no way of knowing who is monitoring me through it. In fact the Samaritans proudly trumpet that “The people you follow won’t know you’ve signed up to it” and having carefully read the press releases there seems to be no way I can stop people using the app to watch me. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Another disconcerting point from the press release is this:
Why do the Samaritans feel the need to store a count of flags against my (as someone being spied on through their app) Twitter ID, what purpose does this serve and what will they do with such data? In addition, why do they want to store the identities of a Radar user’s friends? And why shouldn’t I know who’s using this app to monitor me
so I can block them?
I know some would say that as all my tweets are in the public domain I have no grounds for concern; that people who follow me are watching me anyway. To a degree this is true. But when I tweet about feeling depressed, hypomanic, anxious or suicidal the last thing I want is to know that emails are immediately being sent to anyone who wishes it. The support and kindness I’ve received from Twitter users is lovely but it’s by chance when someone has seen something I’ve said, not because someone is targeting me to see when I’m in distress.
I’ve already seen several people say that they now feel unable to be open on Twitter as a result of this app’s launch and I have sympathy for that stance. It’s going to be like having someone watching over your shoulder all the time. It makes vulnerable people feel more vulnerable and more likely to suffer in silence instead of opening up. If there was a way to prevent your followers from watching your account with this app then I think my objections would largely disappear. But as it stands all the Samaritans have done is make me feel less safe, not more. Please, if you follow me or anyone else with mental illnesses on Twitter, do not utilise Samaritans Radar without asking permission.