The perils of sociability

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Student politics is increasingly played out online through social media. This phenomenon is not new, but it seems particularly significant at a time when discussion cannot take place physically in Durham, and the default space tends to be online. Although social media offers a high degree of accessibility, one only has to look to ‘Overheard at Durham’ and ‘Durfess’ to see the issues with it.

One of the best things about the involvement of social media in student politics is the potential for real accountability. Whistle-blowing can be done anonymously and reach a large audience. We are in an excellent position to challenge elected representatives who are meant to speak for students. A key tool of attack in these spaces is the screenshot. A powerful, and sometimes justified weapon to hold those in positions of authority and organisations to account and establish facts. But with this also comes the risk of bullying and false allegations where anonymity becomes particularly problematic.

Online petitions likely influenced the decision of the university to introduce a safety-net policy

These platforms allow for debate to reach large sections of the student populace. This makes for more effective campaigns and discussion. For example, debates over the best way to carry out examinations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis have spawned petitions and dialogue, which likely influenced the decision of the university to introduce a safety-net policy.

The issues with this large audience are felt when debate becomes toxic, and falls to personal attacks. Issues that used to be discussed in meetings or private spaces now play out very publicly. And the potential for false or misleading messages is increased as the debate is opened to a wider audience in a less regulated manner.

Issues that used to be discussed in meetings or private spaces now play out very publicly

Social media offers an opportunity for greater engagement, accountability and debate. But it is fraught with problems, and it is easy to argue that it has made student politics increasingly divisive and difficult to participate in. No matter our feelings for it, social media has become an unavoidable part of student politics, and we must learn to deal with it in a much better way.

Considerate responses, and a focus on challenging issues not people is absolutely necessary if we are to operate an effective discussion. In unregulated spaces such as social media, it is up to the group to define the limits of what is acceptable, and we must work to foster an environment where anyone may feel able to contribute in a respectful and productive manner.

Image: Sean MacEntee via Flickr

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