Drink and Drugs News DDN July_August 2019 | Page 7

More on tackling stigma at: www.drinkanddrugsnews.com ‘drugs’, leads our thought processes directly to a sense of threat and danger. This creates social distancing between the stigmatiser and the stigmatised, and contributes towards the dehumanisation of the latter, painting them as something to be feared. We all, to some extent, fear what we do not understand. People with little or no experience of drug and alcohol issues have no other information to draw on to temper their fear, and are therefore particularly susceptible to this mental short cut. The notion of attribution error tells us that people tend to unduly emphasise other people’s character, rather than external factors, when explaining their behaviours. This effect has been described as ‘the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are’. This is especially likely to occur when someone has little experience of the external factors that drive addiction. The mental short cut of hearing the word ‘drugs’ and immediately associating this with fear leads people with drug and alcohol problems to be personally blamed and shamed. As people learn more they are less likely to blame an individual, and more likely to seek an understanding of the complex social drivers of the harms of addiction, such as poverty, deprivation, childhood experiences, poor health, social policy and lack of social mobility and opportunity. Gaining knowledge and experience means the mental short cut is interrupted by a more thoughtful consideration. However, as Tim Berners-Lee observed, the benevolent design of social media, which offers the promise of a collective considered judgement on the world around us, so often presents simple, quick and shallow mistaken thinking that reinforces prejudice instead. With this in mind, we set out to analyse all public UK social media posts on the subject of drugs and alcohol over a two-month period between December 2018 and January 2019. Unsurprisingly, we found more than 75,000 www.drinkanddrugsnews.com uses of stigmatising language, as well as evidence that stigmatising tweets/posts are highly likely to ‘go viral’. The vast majority of these stigmatising social media posts were focused on drug use, and were not apparently intended to be directly malicious or abusive. There was a high percentage of people using stigmatising drug-related terms to be humorous in order to reap that coveted social media reward – getting attention. However, discussion of alcohol problems and homelessness was much more compassionate. Here we saw the more benevolent design of social media coming into effect, with more discussions of an empathetic nature involving broader social context and social policy implications. This suggests that the more familiar issues of alcohol problems and homelessness reduce the tendency to blame the individual, and increase the likelihood of consideration of the context of the issue. We also saw these more considerate messages gaining the reward of online attention in the form of likes, shares and retweets. So, what can we do to encourage the benevolent design of social media to reduce stigma? Our sector has a longstanding, strong tradition of sharing life stories as a means of reducing blame and shame. One strategy that has potential is to tap into this tradition of story sharing through social media. First person stories told by people with first- hand experience convey the reality of addiction with nuance and context. Internal thought processes are explained and the reader has the opportunity to connect with the issue on a deeper level than purely observed second-hand behaviour. Through stories, the reader/viewer can get to know the storyteller and connect on an emotional level with their hopes and fears, vicariously experiencing the way the storyteller sees the world in which they live. Storytelling breaks down the shallow polarisation of ‘us and them’, and brings people together as a shared ‘us’. What we have seen, then, is that stories Thomas reached more than 17,500 people on Facebook alone with almost 1,000 people engaging with his story can combat stigma by activating social media’s benevolent design potential to create a compassionate community of support. We encourage others to explore this potential in a manner that is creative, engaging and respectful to the storyteller. You can read the Phoenix report Care to share – social media conversation about addiction, recovery and stigma at www.phoenix-futures.org.uk James Armstrong is director of innovation and marketing at Phoenix Futures July/August 2019 | drinkanddrugsnews | 7