Social media is full of stigmatising language about drug use. We should be using powerful first-person stories to create a more positive picture, says James Armstrong.
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As a charity Phoenix has been actively using social media for around eight years. It offers us an opportunity to share knowledge and experience about drugs and alcohol away from the sometimes suspect agenda – or poorly informed opinions – found within more traditional forms of media. Over this time, we’ve developed a highly engaged group of followers and friends, and a compassionate community of support.
However, none of us need spend long on social media before we encounter what inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee described on its 30th anniversary as the ‘unintended negative consequences of [the web’s] benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse’.
Often the online discourse on drugs and alcohol is prompted by news stories that set the tone for outrage and conflict. Just as angry and provocative headlines stir the emotions of the public in order to sell papers, there can be a similarly attention-seeking approach online.
It’s hard to shake the underlying feeling that this polarised online discourse of anger and outrage is driven by stigma. So in response to this, late last year we started to think about how we could shed light on the stigma that is at the root of how drugs and alcohol are presented in British social media, and how having a clearer idea of this could ultimately help the sector combat it effectively.
There are various types of stigma, and all create barriers to treatment and support. We know that self-stigma breeds feelings of guilt and shame in people who need help and delays their accessing of treatment, so prolonging harm and suffering for them and their loved ones. Societal stigma, meanwhile, limits access to resources such as funding for treatment, access to jobs, homes and social engagement, and structural stigma influences the multiple social policies that discriminate against the people who use our services and their families.
Stigma has the potential to invade all forms of social interaction because it exists, perhaps unconsciously, in the minds of so many people. However, people’s minds can be changed if we start to understand how the feelings and attitudes that lead to stigma are formed.
Stigma can be seen as a mental short cut. It bypasses nuanced understanding of complex issues and, upon hearing the word ‘drugs’, leads our thought processes directly to a sense of threat and danger. This creates social distancing between the stigmatiser and the stigmatised, and contributes towards the dehumanisation of the latter, painting them as something to be feared.
We all, to some extent, fear what we do not understand. People with little or no experience of drug and alcohol issues have no other information to draw on to temper their fear, and are therefore particularly susceptible to this mental short cut.
The notion of attribution error tells us that people tend to unduly emphasise other people’s character, rather than external factors, when explaining their behaviours. This effect has been described as ‘the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are’. This is especially likely to occur when someone has little experience of the external factors that drive addiction. The mental short cut of hearing the word ‘drugs’ and immediately associating this with fear leads people with drug and alcohol problems to be personally blamed and shamed.
As people learn more they are less likely to blame an individual, and more likely to seek an understanding of the complex social drivers of the harms of addiction, such as poverty, deprivation, childhood experiences, poor health, social policy and lack of social mobility and opportunity. Gaining knowledge and experience means the mental short cut is interrupted by a more thoughtful consideration. However, as Tim Berners-Lee observed, the benevolent design of social media, which offers the promise of a collective considered judgement on the world around us, so often presents simple, quick and shallow mistaken thinking that reinforces prejudice instead.
With this in mind, we set out to analyse all public UK social media posts on the subject of drugs and alcohol over a two-month period between December 2018 and January 2019. Unsurprisingly, we found more than 75,000 uses of stigmatising language, as well as evidence that stigmatising tweets/posts are highly likely to ‘go viral’. The vast majority of these stigmatising social media posts were focused on drug use, and were not apparently intended to be directly malicious or abusive. There was a high percentage of people using stigmatising drug-related terms to be humorous in order to reap that coveted social media reward – getting attention.
However, discussion of alcohol problems and homelessness was much more compassionate. Here we saw the more benevolent design of social media coming into effect, with more discussions of an empathetic nature involving broader social context and social policy implications. This suggests that the more familiar issues of alcohol problems and homelessness reduce the tendency to blame the individual, and increase the likelihood of consideration of the context of the issue. We also saw these more considerate messages gaining the reward of online attention in the form of likes, shares and retweets.
So, what can we do to encourage the benevolent design of social media to reduce stigma? Our sector has a longstanding, strong tradition of sharing life stories as a means of reducing blame and shame. One strategy that has potential is to tap into this tradition of story sharing through social media.
First person stories told by people with first-hand experience convey the reality of addiction with nuance and context. Internal thought processes are explained and the reader has the opportunity to connect with the issue on a deeper level than purely observed second-hand behaviour. Through stories, the reader/viewer can get to know the storyteller and connect on an emotional level with their hopes and fears, vicariously experiencing the way the storyteller sees the world in which they live. Storytelling breaks down the shallow polarisation of ‘us and them’, and brings people together as a shared ‘us’.
What we have seen, then, is that stories can combat stigma by activating social media’s benevolent design potential to create a compassionate community of support. We encourage others to explore this potential in a manner that is creative, engaging and respectful to the storyteller.
You can read the Phoenix Futures report Care to share – social media conversation about addiction, recovery and stigma at www.phoenix-futures.org.uk