Online abuse should not be a “normal” part of a student officer’s role

Jo Walters is an independent communications consultant

Don’t read the comments. In many ways that’s great advice for students’ union officers. Why ruin your day by reading nasty comments when you’ve got plenty of other things to do?

But when you’re tagged in comments online, when those comments encourage people to email you abuse, when those comments appear at volumes or frequency that make them impossible to ignore, when those comments pop up on your phone or in your inbox, when you feel an obligation to listen to people as an elected officer? Then that’s terrible advice.

Many officers get more advice and support than just “don’t read the comments” – but I think this is an area where we’re collectively failing our officers, students and potential future officers.

Saying “don’t read the comments” or “just ignore it” belittles the impact that content like this has on individual officers, on students deciding they don’t want to face that and choosing not to nominate themselves, and on students and officers’ willingness to speak out on issues and talk about their work.

The new normal

I’ve spoken a lot to former officers about some of the hate they get. Much of it seems to have been normalised either explicitly or implicitly as “just part of the job”. But unwarranted hatred shouldn’t be part of anyone’s job, let alone a poorly paid officer for whom this may be their first full-time job.

Some union staff I speak to seem unaware of the extent of the issue, often because officers don’t think it’s worth mentioning or that their concerns won’t be taken seriously. This means we are woefully undersupporting officers, their wellbeing and their mental health.

These aren’t the comments that pop up under the occasional article in the local paper where we can roll our eyes at them whipping up tired anti-student arguments and gloss over bobthebuilder293874’s clearly uninformed views on something that doesn’t really matter.

This is personal, targeted and often hate-filled abuse drowning officers in a sea of malice. It’s worse if you’re a woman, or a person of colour, or marginalised in other ways (let alone any combination of these).

And it’s often anonymous – content posted on a Facebook “confessions” pages talking about their appearance not their politics, and about their background not their body of work.

Accountability issues

The development of the rapid, distributed and anonymous communication platforms has been a hugely positive development in many ways. Anonymity offers the ability for those struggling with their identity to express themselves. And the rapidity and distribution means that SUs and their officers can be closer to students than was ever possible when students had to attend a meeting or call into an office to offer a view.

But that opens up multiple downsides. The directness means that hurtful or oppressive comments reach those they targeted without filters. The rapidity and ease with which messages can be sent means that it can relentless, happening at multiple times in a day or week. And the anonymity offers abuse and abusers a place to hide.

The upcoming Online Safety Bill offers a version of the sorts of definitions we should be looking at. “Harm” is defined in the Bill as content whose nature risks directly or indirectly having an adverse physical or psychological impact on someone of ordinary sensibilities. This could be by indirectly resulting in physical injuries or by directly or indirectly resulting in a significant negative effect on the mental state of an individual – and could include causing feelings such as serious anxiety and fear; longer-term conditions such as depression and stress; and medically recognised mental illnesses, both short-term and permanent.

It’s not that bad

Even where the content of messages would not reach an objective definition of harmful or abusive per se, the way in which content is framed or sent can be harmful. Should we want students to be able to offer negative feedback to those they’ve elected? Yes. Should that happen fifty or sixty times a day direct to someone’s pocket? That’s likely to be harmful.

In the draft Online Safety Bill, another section provides that content may be harmful due to the way in which it is disseminated, even if the nature of the content is not itself harmful – for example, repeatedly sending apparently innocuous content to a user could be bullying or intimidating. In determining whether content is harmful, a provider will also have to take into account how many users could be encountering the content on the service and how easily, quickly and widely the content can be disseminated on the service.

In other words, we should think about behaviour as well as content when we’re drawing lines between “free speech” and harassment and bullying.

Student officers understand that not everyone will like everything they do, and are ok with receiving genuine feedback. This isn’t about wrapping them up in cotton wool because they’re dainty snowflakes. I’ve never met an officer who isn’t up for listening to genuine feedback.

I’m talking about officers’ home addresses being posted online, being sent death threats and rape threats, people with absolutely no connection to the university posting racist replies to an officers’ Twitter post, and sometimes just a need to protect officers from a stream of negativity. That’s not any sort of quality debate that officers are shying away from. It’s uninformed, intimidating or unconstructive content that suppresses officers – particularly women and people of colour. There’s our chilling effect.

There’s another reason this should matter to SUs. The government has announced that it intends to introduce a new duty requiring employers to prevent sexual harassment, as it believes that this will encourage employers into taking positive proactive steps to make the workplace safer for everyone. That will include explicit protections from third-party harassment – ie students. Full-time officers have long been defined as employees – so the time to start thinking about what can or should be done is now.

I’m working with Glitch, a UK charity that wants to make the Internet a safer place for everyone, and SU Skills, the strategy and training agency for SUs to create tailored training and support for SUs and their officers. If you are a current or former officer we’d love to hear about your experience in our short survey.

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