Institutional Trust and Silencing a 9-Year-Old Girl

Happy Father’s Day, belatedly! My parents and in-laws were in town this weekend, so I was not able to finish this post on time. But here it is, hopefully still of interest.

Over the course of Friday, we saw an interesting story unfold about an Scottish food blog written by primary school student. John Russell at The Next Web (UK: Local Authorities Silence 9-Year-Old Girl Behind School Lunch Blog) writes:

A nine-year-old British school girl has had her popular blog about school food closed by a local council. Martha Payne, a primary school student in Western Scotland, began posting photos of her school dinners with commentary in May and today ‘Never Seconds‘ passed more than 2 million page views.

The site became more than just her school lunches, as Martha included photos and stories sent to her by readers from across the world. Upon realising that the site had become popular, Martha channelled the attention positively and began to ask readers to contribute towards her target of a £7,000 donation to Africa school food charity Mary’s Meals.

There are lots of interesting details in the case (and the coverage) that show how complicated the case is. The blog has been going for more than a year, and some suggest that Payne’s work has improved the quality of the meals. On the other hand, as we would expect, the blog show’s only one side of the story. That’s what bloggers do! A quote from a letter from the Council suggests that the fact that Payne’s images show only some of the food options present a skewed vision of the quality of the lunches that are available. Overall, though, the blog seemed to be facilitating conversation among children about their own lunches. Parents talk a lot about food, but getting kids talking is a real accomplishment. And she was raising money for school lunches in Africa! Very cool.

But Friday, the Council ordered the blog closed in order to “protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing” due to increased coverage of the blog in the blogosphere. We’ve seen schools in the US try to shut down student websites, but these cases have only withstood legal challenges when the sites are clearly defamatory. There seemed little defamatory about Payne’s blog.

Throughout the whole episode, Payne’s father went to great lengths to de-escalate the situation, writing on the blog to defend the school for their reasonable stance over the life of the blog. Perhaps he was overly generous, but I can understand a father trying to keep his child out of the center of a growing firestorm that might potentially lead to a lot of harm.

Over the course of Friday, outrage grew across the web. By the end of the day the Council relented and retracted their ban. Good move.

So, what’s the takeaway here? There are lots of things, but it seems to me that the biggest one here is about institutions getting used to the new social world. PR training in the past focused on managing the image of the institution in the public eye. This approach, however, makes a key assumption, namely that the image could be controlled. Twenty years ago, there were a limited number of streams of influence. Companies put out ads and press releases, products were covered in the news, and there was buzz in social groups. But beyond that, there wasn’t much.

Today, there are unlimited streams of influence, and almost none of them are under a company’s control. As a result, institutions can overdo it when they find negative streams that they see as potentially controllable. Last year, staff of Kansas Senator Sam Brownback influenced a school to discipline a junior high student who tweeted something negative about the senator during a class trip to the state capital! But the negative coverage surrounding a clear attempt to block free speech far outweighed the damage of the original tweet. The same is true here. You can’t control every negative comment out there like you could in decades past. When institutions try to—whether legitimate or not—they inevitably end up looking worse for it.

Additionally, trying to create a perfectly polished image in the face of clear failure will likely work against organizations in the long run. Relationships between institutions and individuals hinge, at least in part, on trust. We need to have confidence in government, companies, and social networks if society is going to operate smoothly. Institutions that try to silence critique (for instance, through bans, takedown notices or SLAPP lawsuits) undermine trust mechanisms by making themselves look vindictive, hence, untrustworthy. Why should I trust an institution that fears rather than respects me, that fears rather than respects change?

Hopefully instituions will learn from this example and learn to live with our new hyper-social world.

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