Linda Butcher: Social media is crucial, but is not without risks

As the use of online technologies grows, charities must ensure their approaches work for everyone involved, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

A class action suit was filed recently in Austria challenging Facebook over various alleged rights violations and alleged privacy breaches, including tracking the data of individuals who are not even Facebook users. And in the UK, a new legal ruling determined that British consumers have the right to sue Google in our courts over alleged tracking and misuse of private information.

Not so new is the issue of ownership. Generally, you own what you post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites; but their terms allow them to use that content as they wish. As users, we are tracked for advertising and other purposes. That is the price we pay for these services instead of a fee. Many charities, including the SMK, use these sites as vital communications tools, but how many have assessed the potential risk to themselves, their supporters or those they exist to help?

A dip in social media usage in Germany has been attributed largely to concerns about privacy. More widely, public disquiet has grown over government requests for data: more than 35,000 requests for personal data were made to Facebook in the past year by governments around the world.

Several attempts to create alternatives to mainstream social media sites have failed to take off. In 2011 Unthink was conceived as a social media site with strict privacy rules that could become a legitimate rival to Facebook. By 2012 it was another stalled or binned concept. Others with good intentions include Diaspora, which is still running but has been described as a ghost town when compared with Facebook. However, some people believe that these internet upstarts - like many campaigns that don't achieve their overall goals but help to change things incrementally in the process – have improved the terms the giants impose on privacy options or real-names policies.

By creating new apps themselves, charities can innovate, stay up to date, open up their reach and act in a cost-effective manner. One such app is the open-source Be My Eyes, which connects people with impaired vision with volunteers who can assist with difficult tasks, using VoiceOver technology.

But straying into this territory can bring dangers as well as benefits. Samaritans recently created Radar, a Twitter app designed to offer people a second chance to see a tweet from someone they know who might be struggling to cope. It was suspended after criticism from Twitter users that it was an invasion of privacy, and then closed.

As the use of online technologies grows, charities face ongoing challenges to ensure their approaches work for everyone involved - including service users and supporters who don't tweet and aren't on Facebook.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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