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Unsocial networking: The missing art of debate

Ann Allen MBE FRICS
Chief Executive Officer
Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors

Last year, the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors (CICES) became aware that several surveyors had quit social media because of abusive comments, direct messages and unsolicited images they had received following posts about their work. We spoke to our own 2040 Forum for early career members about this, and they confirmed that it was an issue many of them were facing.

CICES works closely with Get Kids into Survey, which has a global network of volunteer survey ambassadors who go into schools to talk about careers. By sharing these initial anecdotes, we soon learned that this was a widespread issue. Both Get Kids into Survey and ourselves were concerned that these experiences were becoming a barrier to entry and a reason for leaving an essential profession that already faces a skills crisis. It could also be a potential factor in the poor mental health that many construction professionals battle. We knew we had to do something, but what? We did what any good surveyor would do when faced with this kind of conundrum, we would measure it before we could manage it.

We developed a survey with the aim of working out how much of a problem we were facing and if there were any patterns in the abuse. We also wanted to garner views on what the roles of employers, professional bodies, social media platform owners, the police and government are. As interest grew, Women in Property in the UK, the National Society for Professional Surveyors in the US, and Association of Consulting Surveyors in Australia offered their support and shared the survey with their members, meaning that we were now looking at the experiences of the wider construction professions.

We received 231 responses. Of those, 51 (23%) had received abusive or negative (not constructive) comments on posts about their work. 32 had received abusive direct messages. 30 had received inappropriate images. While 146 respondents had never blocked anyone, 12 had blocked over 25 accounts, and one person had blocked over 200. 30 people had taken a break from social media after negative experiences. While the survey figures established that there is an issue, what had more of an impact were the comments that people made. Some of the experiences we heard about were frankly appalling.

There were surprises. The first being that some were questioning why a professional body should be carrying out such a survey. We were accused of interfering with free speech, which was ironic considering one of the fundamental roles of an institution is to ensure that there is active, illuminating and constructive debate about professional issues.

Another surprise was around who was more likely to experience abuse online. We had expected the majority of abuse to be aimed at women, but there were many men who were being impacted. Again, it was becoming clear that this was all about the art of respectful debate. Debate should only ever be about the issues, not the individuals – and that is something we seem to be sadly losing sight of.

It’s very easy to blame social media for the way people conduct themselves, when there is a lot of extremism today in society and politically. How some people express themselves on social media is symptomatic of this and I believe as a society we need to learn to respect ourselves more. We are facing huge challenges, and the built environment is at the heart of a lot of those, particularly climate change. We are going to need debate to test a variety of ideas to get that best outcome and we all have a responsibility to help that debate develop in a professional way.

What can a professional body do about this? The first step is to be active in the right way on social media ourselves. We need to encourage training and development for members around how to use social media effectively and represent themselves professionally on platforms like LinkedIn, and also to understand the impact of what they are posting.

We can also play a role developing guidance for individual surveyors and employers, so they know there are steps they can take when faced with abuse. Professional bodies are also employers, and we have to be alert to the public perception of what is being said about our employees and organisation. As well as reputational damage, these things can take a person’s confidence away entirely, and we need to be mindful about how we support employees facing online abuse – when aimed at themselves or the organisation – and look at what lessons we can learn from those situations. 

One respondent commented ‘most people are great’ and it is important we don’t lose sight of that.  We cannot forget that social media can be a positive tool. It is certainly here to stay. That huge talent pool we want to attract of all genders, races, social backgrounds – all of them use social media. It may be through who we encourage, who we follow, what we learn, but we will need to use social media to attract them to a profession that is full of vibrant ideas and exciting debate. None of us can afford to exclude talent, there is not enough around.

Unsocial Networking, the report from CICES and Get Kids into Survey is available online by clicking here.

Contributor:  Ann Allen MBE FRICS is the Chief Executive Officer of the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors (CICES)

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