Using Twitter to support Indigenous cultural revitalization and youth well-being

Creating safe online communities

Photo: © Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Indigenous youth are using social media at higher rates than other young people across Canada. Due to systemic issues ranging from racism and intergenerational trauma to the challenges of remote communities lacking access to health or social services, Indigenous young people also experience mental health challenges like suicide at a much higher rate than the general population. And in many cases, the early warning signs are often seen in digital environments and platforms like Twitter.

To learn more about the relationship between social media and Indigenous youth’s mental health, Jeffrey Ansloos, Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Indigenous Health and Social Action on Suicide at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto—who is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation—is partnering with Twitter through a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant. Together, they’re examining how Twitter could be improved to not only respond to mental health crises but also support initiatives that would make the online environment a safer and more meaningful space for Indigenous youth.

“We often think of these platforms as just tools and technologies,” said Ansloos. “But it’s more helpful to think of them as real spaces where people engage in real social relations. That brings some profound social responsibilities so we need more robust ways of thinking about and conceptualizing these spaces.”

Building supportive communities

Using a methodology he calls hashtag ethnography, Ansloos and his team are tracking hashtags and interviewing Twitter influencers to see how certain information moves in real time across vast regions. With this approach, they’re able to map the many ways in which mental health issues are experienced and shared through Indigenous community networks.

The research showed that Indigenous youth have formed vibrant Twitter communities around topics like language revitalization, art-based cultural activities and suicide prevention. In these online communities, they talk about the relationship between the structural issues they face and their mental health, and support each other through their struggles. But as positive as these initiatives are, the public nature of Twitter opens them up to being targeted by people and bots spreading hateful images and content.

“The space has so much potential for connecting people,” said Ansloos. “But it can also be easily co-opted for hateful and inflammatory purposes. So we’re listening to what Indigenous young people think needs to change to make Twitter safer and more responsive to users.”

Designing a safer Twitter

Partnering with Twitter has allowed Ansloos to better understand the many behind-the-scenes variables that influence the company’s decisions about its technologies and policies. As a result, he believes this research will produce clear, realistic recommendations for handling risky or harmful content that Twitter will be able to act on.

“Understanding how online conversations can reinforce healthy conversations in real life will increase the resilience of our communities,” said Michele Austin, Twitter Canada’s head of government, public policy and philanthropy. “We hope this research acts as a catalyst for governments, private organizations and Indigenous communities to work together to deliver better services.”

Ansloos shares that hope. “With better research, we can make sure we have the right practices and policies in place to help social media play a real role in promoting Indigenous cultural and community wellness.”

Want to learn more?

Follow @JeffreyAnsloos on Twitter for more information about his work.

This story was originally posted in April 2019.