iactivism in, and for social work

This blog is largely a note to myself. It marks a moment in time for me as a tech interested social worker and tech critical social work academic. It is written because of the frustrations I feel about having little in the way of helpful solutions to digital platform exploitation and dangers, and due to the thoughts I have about the role of social work in the push back necessary. It is about my choice or indeed my possible failure to continue with an act of digital resistance – an iactivist stance to technologies that mine, scrape and misuse data. Whilst I am aware of and acknowledge that there are many equally unethical platforms and platform designers, it is Zoom I have been avoiding. This is due to its pretty abysmal track record in this area, and due to the overwhelming use of this platform across human services professions. The latter I acknowledge is largely associated with the level of digital dependency required in response to the current global pandemic, and the ‘ease’ [baked into the design] of use that makes this platform so ‘attractive’. It is a reflection on what I do or where I go now in terms of my attempts to raise awareness of the implications of platform capitalism, surveillance and data mining and what this means for us all, and more importantly for those human service professionals serve, and often have a responsibility to and for. It is in part too an acknowledgement of the pains associated with my self-imposed exclusion from events that involve this particular digital platform, events where the ethics and data implications of platform usage are often left unexplained, are unknown or can’t be explained at all.

A brief comment on how I got here: In my role as a social work educator I have been interested in the use of new and emerging social type technologies for a significant amount of time. Initially it was the pedagogic gains and flexibility or the affordances that #edtech seemed to offer that caught my eye. Seeing students connect on platforms such as Twitter with the wider #socialwork community, to develop their network, their knowledge and their academic voices was a real source of joy. I too have benefited from connecting virtually and widely on this platform, and continue, most of the time, to enjoy and benefit from the connections I have made. Conversely, a short time after dipping my toe into the #edtech pond, I began to see and experience things that I felt less comfortable with and clear about. I have never (thankfully) felt at ease with the use of Facebook as a pedagogic device in social work education. Indeed, it was the boundary blurring that can occur through purposive algorithmic design that contributed to a number of practitioners making choices that lead to behaviors that are in conflict with professional expectations. Indeed, some of the most alarming incidents of social work professionals coming unstuck online have involved this platform. I continue to feel wary of inviting students into ienvironments and ispaces – where they too might feel uneasy, find themselves compromised or unknowingly fall foul of interconnectivity online.

Continuing on with what had been started long before: For over 30 years my @husITa.org colleagues have been advocating for social work to engage more judiciously with technologies. How slow social work has been to respond is well documented, that was until social distancing measures and physical restrictions were put in place to control the spread of the COVID19 virus. Since that time social work, more out of necessity than out of choice, made a dash into the online. It was this very dash that led to my iactivism, an act of resistance positioned to make visible my angst about the implications for services-users, or indeed students, when being invited into ienvironments that are ‘free’ to assess, in terms of privacy, rights and information safety. I remain unclear, and to a larger extent unconvinced, about how consent can be outlined or communicated in accessible and digestible terms as per data protection legislation given that platforms continue to be exposed and sued for data and privacy infringements. An issue made clear through the #CambridgeAnalytica scandal and the nonsense those in the tech industries attempted to feed the American senate.

So what now? What do I do given that to engage fully with my professional groupings (social work and social work education) means the use of Zoom? I could ask for a full explanation about how entering that environment might impact on me short, mid and longer term? I could ask for a full explanation, informed by data protection law, of how my data is being processed and where it is being stored? To date however when I have asked Q’s of this nature I have been met with less than reassuring responses [such as: everyone is using it, chill out, its not a big deal, it works] – that means I remain unconvinced or even unaware of who will have my data, where it will be stored, or if I should really care. I am currently finding it harder and harder to continue with my iactivism anti-zoom stance.

Whilst this blog is mostly a note to myself – I guess I am hoping that someone might reach out with some advice, guidance, help or even just in solidarity. Even though I am fully aware that individual level iactivism is not going to make a dent in the socio-technical problems of our time, I am a hoping that each time I have brought the issue of platform ethics to the fore that someone somewhere has paused to consider or reconsider their digital choices and or their data and person-in-environment professional responsibilities. It feels like there is so much riding on each of us, and particularly a profession like social work, taking a stance – because the risks to privacy, rights and the welfare state are high – for us all – but mostly for those we serve.


*I also should have mentioned, amongst many other things, the above blog is also likely to have felt more urgent to write after having watched IHuman https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/dec/08/ihuman-review-doom-laden-documentary-about-the-future-of-ai This documentary added to my growing angst about living in a #postprivacysociety

** also this paper might too help articulate the problem as I see it


2 thoughts on “iactivism in, and for social work

  1. Amanda so many excellent points made around the use of data scraping. I think we all now live with the cookie collective. When we purchase on Amazon or eBay and suddenly our social timelines are full of similar items that we have bought. Now what we say in a digital video conference; is data scraping underway? If I mention that I would love a new coat for winter over a zoom coffee session, set up to build connections during this pandemic; how would I feel seeing new winter coats for sale in my Facebook timeline the next day. For social work that privacy of the compassionate and caring word to a vulnerable family over a zoom call is sacrosanct, but what, just if, that vulnerable parent connected their social work conversation to something now appearing on their public timeline; the very essence of social work confidentiality and privacy would have profound effects on the standards and practice for social work professionals and the reputation of the profession would be called into question. We continue to encourage digital in social work and challenges are being overcome, but what if the very digitalisation of practice may be the downfall of the profession through standards of privacy and confidentiality not being maintained by big tech.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to reply Declan. The issues you raise about privacy and confidentiality in this hyper connected age underpin my fears – largely because of the implications of our practice choices on others – many of which remain unknown or unexamined. What if a user of social services does find that we have brought them into a space without a comprehensive assessment and therefore knowledge of that space and an articulation of what the implications might be? Are we equipped to articulate privacy and confidentiality whilst using social technology platforms? Is this not what we are required to do under data protection laws? Big tech will lay our usage firmly at our door. I do think as a profession we need to talk about this more. We need to draw a digital line in the sand – primarily for the people we serve.


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