Social distancing: the rise of social media snitching

Looking through the posts on my local mutual aid Facebook group in Hackney, I once again came across a person enraged by the amount of people she came across on her daily walk through her local park. We’ve all seen these posts on social media, candid pics of people sitting down on the grass to enjoy a moment of sun with comments condemning them for jeopardising everybody’s health.

“So, you are angry at them for doing the same thing as you.” quipped one commenter.

With social distancing not going anywhere soon, is there something more sinister going on with people willing to judge and snitch on their neighbours so freely that we should be guarding against?

“Guten Tag. I would like to make a report,” says a voice in a telephone recording. “It’s about Mr. …. He is constantly receiving visitors in his apartment, often different women, likely also some from the West.”

Everyone knows about the East German Stasi and the extent to which it spied on the East German populace. But that was only a small part of the informing that went on. Research shows that snitching was vastly more common than previously thought and that the East German grassing machine went far beyond the Stazi. The state relied on people to snitch on each other, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear.

Hedwig Richter, a professor at the University of Greifswald, said in an article for Spiegel International that:

Mutual evaluation, judgment, criticism and self-critique were omnipresent. Across the country, people were on the lookout for divergent viewpoints, which were then branded as dangerous to the state. Often to one’s own advantage.

The problem with social surveillance is that it exposes our prejudices. It could be as innocent as you have never liked your neighbour because he plays terrible music loudly. But it could also be you never liked your neighbour because he is black, Jewish or Gay. This is exacerbated in a social media setting where there is a sense of anonymity.

“Can you intercede with the Rabbi to stop what happened in Israel happening here.” said one tweet to our Hackney Lib Dem handle just before Passover. The picture in the tweet was of Jewish men queuing up two metres apart waiting to get into pray outside of a synagogue in Stamford Hill, Hackney. The only difference I saw between that queue and the one outside the local supermarket was that the people queuing were Orthodox Jews.

It’s a minefield of conscious and unconscious bias, and it is something we need to be very careful of.

There will be lots of big issues to discuss around personal freedom over the coming months, apps tracking locations, QR codes identifying who has and hasn’t had the virus potentially creating a two-tier society.

What should underpin every discussion should be our absolute commitment to protect personal liberty, and that has to start with our attitudes and behaviour towards each other.

There are people breaking the rules that deserve to be fined or punished some other way under the law, but there is also a lot of snobbery and prejudice driving the commentary around the behaviour of ‘others’ in our society during the lockdown that we need to guard against becoming the norm.

So, the next time you take a walk in the park, don’t be so quick to judge and just enjoy the fresh air!


* Darren Martin is the Press and Communications Officer for the Hackney Lib Dems.

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  • Richard Underhill 26th Apr '20 - 1:46pm

    Darren Martin | Sun 26th April 2020 – 12:04 pm
    Ask people “How do you think?” and they may be insulted, reluctant to admit to xenophobia (2016 referendum) or anti-Semitism (Ken Livingston, Labour Party) or tradition (Rees-Mogg, son of Rees-Mogg).
    “The lady is not for turning” was an open and deliberate admission of fixed views by the Prime Minister which were changed by
    firstly the Eastbourne by-election,
    secondly by a Cabinet (which did not contain her main challenger) united against her,
    thirdly by the defeat in the Ribble Valley by-election, a previously safe Conservative seat, and the consequent abolition of the Community Charge (poll Tax) by a Tory government, as predicted.
    Please watch the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 today, 26/4/2020.
    Professor Brian Cox has developed an increased respect for teachers during the lockdown.
    He did not actually refer to “the scientific method” but please consider what happens when one politician, such as Boris Al Johnson MP or Dominic Grieve MP has a press conference alongside the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer.
    The scientists will be pleased if an existing theory is overturned and a new discovery is made. That could advance a scientist’s career and maybe save thousands of human lives around the world. Might s/he become as famous as Hubble or Einstein?
    Now consider “dark matter”. What does it look like? How much does it weigh?
    Is it a modern substitute for the “ether” an obsolete theory for whatever is left?
    If the student rejects the concept is he/she merely disobediently refusing to learn?
    or perhaps grasping an unproven truth?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Apr '20 - 1:55pm

    Believe in the uncertainty principle

  • Einstein did not believe in the uncertainty principle. A famous saying of his about that was that God does not play dice with the Universe. Suppose we might think that what was good enough for Einstein is good enough for us.
    I hope that students are not expected to believe in theories. I hope that they are expected to be able to produce the evidence for and against.
    My opinion about the Downing Street party political broadcasts is that scientists are people. If they are behaving as scientists I would expect them to produce evidence, preferably whether supporting their hypothesis or not. I would also expect them to have some direct knowledge of what they were talking about.

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