Social media has given tenants unprecedented access to housing professionals and opened up communication like never before. But what happens when these channels are abused? Jamillah Knowles investigates
‘It’s astonishing the amount of information people can find out about you online,’ says Kenneth Green* wearily. ‘It can help them to find you outside of a work forum if they want to stalk you. People can even find a home address and that’s when things get worrying.’
Recently the national newspapers have been full of stories about online harassment, after MP Stella Creasy was targeted with a sustained series of rape threats on Twitter. The social networking site has agreed to introduce a button to make it easier to report abusive tweets, after more than 100,000 people signed a petition.
But abuse on social media isn’t confined to politicians. The explosion in the use of social networking sites by landlords has obvious advantages in terms of interaction with tenants - but this new, high-tech world brings dangers too, as Mr Green discovered. His job is to improve relations between social landlords and tenants when there is a dispute. But about 18 months ago, his role switched from mediator to victim. Over the space of several months he faced a prolonged campaign of online abuse from an individual with a grudge.
He was subjected to sustained insults and abuse via Twitter, email and other forms of social media.
‘My professional work was questioned at every point,’ he explains. He pauses, considering the past events and is reluctant to describe details that might start the campaign afresh. ‘There were comments and personal attacks every time I appeared online,’ he says.
Mr Green even attempted to reach out to his abuser in order to calm things down, but to no avail. ‘It’s very difficult to know exactly what to do in those cases when no amount of calling that person or meeting them is going to stop them doing this,’ he says resignedly.
So what are the chief threats faced by housing professionals from online communication? And what solutions are landlords coming up with to cope with anti-social networking?
Social landlords have been piling onto sites like Twitter and Facebook, to encourage open lines of communication with their tenants, who are now commonly flagging up repairs problems online. This is great for all concerned in most cases - but in a small minority, the interaction can develop into something more sinister.
No statistics exist for how often housing professionals are the target of online harassment or threats. Many of the social landlords approached by Inside Housing did not wish to disclose their staff’s experiences of online abuse - although this in itself could be an indication that some are living in fear of the response if they open up.
It is clear, however, that when creating a social media presence, it is important for housing organisations to have policies that can be referred to when it comes to tricky situations and aggressive complaints. David Hall, a senior associate at law firm Anthony Collins, says that having a plan in place for when things go wrong is just as important as creating content and contact points.
‘Social media has memory, and if you make an error and leave personal data online, it can easily be found. A hearty degree of training and guidance is needed and probably more warning about what the risks are. Until you have seen the savagery, persistence and determination of people who use social media for harassment, you maybe don’t really understand the risk.’
Mr Hall says he hears about bad behaviour all too often.
‘It’s widespread,’ he reports. ‘Every single social landlord I advise on IT or data protection has a hard-core, small number of tenants who make an excessive, grossly disproportionate draw on senior management time and resource.’
He adds that ‘typically organisations in this sector endure this behaviour with relative patience and sensitivity’.
‘However, there is an enormous draw at senior management level, I mean right up to chief executive level. The individuals have a lot of time on their hands in most cases and universally are personalisers. They want personal contact and service, they will seek out personal email addresses, direct dial phone numbers and when they have the opportunity, go for home addresses.’
Mr Hall says there are common traits when it comes to those who seek to get closer to professionals. ‘They are detail people,’ he says. ‘They often seek to acquire what they feel is super-competence in say, data protection law for example, or in other areas. They will make repeated data requests, they will seek detailed personal information about members of staff; not only in the organisation but among their partners, in pursuit of the service and personal attention they seek.
‘Given the nature of the beast, it doesn’t surprise me when customers have gone to Companies House to find the personal contact details of officers and directors [and used that information to harass them].’
This can also have an impact on the psyche of the person who is the focus of this abuse.
‘When you get home it has an impact personally,’ says Mr Green, recalling his own experience of being targeted. ‘We access all kinds of social media day and night. On the one hand, that it is great for decision makers to get straight to the root of a problem and work out a solution very quickly. On the other side, it can intrude upon your personal life. If you’re professionally in the spotlight, you should not be affected outside work.’
Psychologist Nathalie Nahai, who specialises in online behaviour, notes that taking time offline is a good way to recover from online attacks, but it is not always easy. ‘One classic way to cope is to have no screen time when you get home,’ she advises. ‘Literally taking yourself offline is one way to avoid bringing that into your private space.’
Ms Nahai points out that sustained abuse or trolling online can have a psychological effect over time. ‘It’s harassment, it’s basically being stalked,’ she says. ‘This is why cyber bullying is so horrendously traumatic, it is all pervasive. If you’re feeling that you are out of control, there’s a lot of emotional stress.’
Sustained harassment can constitute stalking and there is good advice on the Metropolitan Police website on the best ways to handle this while considering personal safety. For example, keeping a record of what has been happening is a valuable resource when it comes to proof if things get to a stage where charges might be pressed against an aggressor.
Mr Hall points out a good relationship with local police can help. ‘The answer that you get from the police depends on which part of the organisation you put the question in to,’ he says. ‘Hopefully a social landlord’s starting point would be at strategic level, as most of them have quite important partnering relationships with their local force. They’ll be operating at a reasonably senior level with the force, and so hopefully you get an intelligent answer at that level.’
Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy and practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing, says: ‘Unfortunately, the abuse of housing professionals by a very small number of people is nothing new, but social media has given them a new way of going about it.
‘Threats of harassment should be dealt with in line with organisations’ existing policies. Generally people are quite well behaved on social media but there have been some recent instances when campaigns against individual organisations have got out of hand. Organisations have generally dealt with them with common sense.’
Alison Jones, the communications and reputation management officer at 12,200-home Magenta Living in the Wirral, says if an employee feels they are being targeted, the best thing to do is to talk to their team and point it out to their organisation.
In the case of Mr Green, the problems were brought before a supportive team in his organisation that is able to handle and discuss the options available. ‘An organisation needs to respond positively and support people in the same way they would if someone came into your office and was overtly or covertly harassing you,’ he says.
Handling social media
Paul Hornsby, digital media team leader at 66,000-home housing association L&Q, has been transferring responsibility for social media from the press office to customer service operatives, as he feels they are more experienced in dealing with tenants.
He explains: ‘The very same people that answer our phone calls and deal with incoming letters and emails from residents are now also answering inquiries coming in via Twitter and Facebook.’
He says the switch is ‘really working for us’, adding: ‘Online abuse happens but we are clear about how we deal with that.’
Mr Hornsby points out that having a firm policy for the use of social media helps to protect staff who may end up dealing with angry customers or those who might be putting themselves and others in danger.
‘When people [tenants] are being abusive and disrespectful, we have guidelines around that,’ he continues. ‘On Facebook we talk about being respectful and we are quite clear about how we deal with people who are not. We point out that our staff are people too. I think most organisations would expect their staff to be treated with a certain level of respect.’
Andrew Pilkington, e-communications officer at Viridian Housing, an association with around 30,000 residents in London and the south east, the midlands and West Sussex, is also considering a different approach to the way Viridian handles social media.
‘In an ideal scenario having the customer service team take part in social media management is a good thing,’ he explains. ‘They have direct access to customer information and files so it makes sense for them to be more at the forefront as well as providing faster response times. More traditional models would have the marketing and communications teams doing that.’
There are terms and conditions on all third-party sites like Twitter and Facebook which help teams that work with social media to moderate bad behaviour. Landlords say it is worth referencing these if a situation gets out of hand. The L&Q policy that Mr Hornsby mentions is clearly posted on the association’s Facebook page.
It warns that offensive posts will be removed and asks residents to ‘avoid identifying or discussing other individuals’. If residents persist with ‘unacceptable behaviour’ they will be barred from the page, it warns.
Caroline Field, regeneration project manager at Orbit Homes, advises that a clear separation between personal and professional accounts is vital for staff. ‘Anyone [any social landlord] who sets up a Facebook page should make sure that it is in no way linked to their personal accounts. I don’t accept [colleagues as] friends on Facebook - it’s not an appropriate terminology to use professionally,’ she says.
Ms Field has also seen anonymity used online to protect aggressors.
‘People set up false profiles,’ she says. ‘We had someone who was not a resident and had a bit of a vendetta against the housing association. They set up a profile claiming to be one of the residents affected by [a regeneration project].
‘People don’t have to use their real names on social media, so they won’t always match what is on the tenancy agreement. They tried to stir up dissent. We saw straight away that the person was not what they seemed to be.’
But the answer isn’t for social landlords to stay off social media, Ms Field argues. ‘If people want to use social media to criticise you, they will do so,’ she says. ‘If you don’t create a space for those discussions to happen, they will create their own where you won’t have control.’
As for Mr Green, the abuse has slowed down - but his abuser has never fully gone away. He is still fearful of it starting up again in earnest. So in cyberspace, as in life, prevention is still the best form of cure.
*Name and identifying details have been changed
David Hall, a senior associate at law firm Anthony Collins, believes social landlords should consider tougher moderation policies on social media, including naming and shaming abusive tenants.
Organisations need to be very clear about abusive incidents and point out that aggressors will not achieve their objectives and that this kind of behaviour will not be rewarded, he argues.
Other possibilities could include restricting a customer to a single point of contact, or only accepting contact by telephone or email.
‘A limit on the volume of correspondence that will be considered from a person, a limit on the times of day when the customer can contact that representative within the organisation - that arrangement might persist for a certain period of time until it is reviewed. Then it can be assessed whether or not that behaviour has started to turn around and if any other measures should be taken or relaxed,’ he suggests.
But, Mr Hall admits: ‘It’s experimental and what we want to do is land that thought [that is, propose the idea] and if that is too strong, or for some reason it won’t work, then: what else would?’
But Andrew Pilkington, e-communications officer at Viridian Housing, feels that limiting forms of contact might not be the best solution. ‘The idea of having a clear public policy about how residents interact on social media channels, that side of it I am all for,’ he says.
‘But I think taking it beyond that and restricting how frequently people can comment is not something we would be comfortable with.’
‘We do get residents sometimes posting content several times a day, but nonetheless if that content isn’t abusive and they have a genuine concern then I would be reluctant to bar them from the page. Certainly I don’t think we would bar anyone unless they were using inappropriate language or if they were being particularly offensive.’