Is it “quiet no platforming” or inevitable anxiety?

There’s an interesting exchange right at the end of the Wonkhe Show this week, where HEPI’s Nick Hillman challenges me on my critique of the debating societies report that he published on Thursday.

Given the “very strong” opinion I had shared in my blog about reports like this discuss concepts like “quiet no platforming” or a “chilling effect”, Nick was keen to know whether I genuinely think that this is just something we just shouldn’t worry about – on the basis that he thinks it does limit the university and student experience.

It’s a fair question – and for me is in the same vein as this thread on Twitter from Iain Mansfield, former SpAd to Gavin Williamson and Michelle Donelan and a driving force behind the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill:

I find when I speak to VCs about low quality courses, drop-out rates, employability or the declining graduate premium, I get a high level of engagement. Often there’s a lot of debate about the metrics, or about what the data shows and we have a good discussion. But there is broad acceptance that this is something that many politicians care about, is legitimate for them to care about and, at least in principle, an agenda the sector should engage with and address.

In contrast, when I speak about cultural issues such as decolonisation or free speech, these are rapidly brushed off. “Oh, all that,” “Well, they’re just playing to the crowd,’” “You know that doesn’t really cost anything,” and similar, with a swift change of subject…There is a determined effort by HE leaders to convince themselves that no-one really cares about these things.

I actually think this is a fair challenge – and a consistent one. Whether we are talking about direct censorship or self-censorship, there clearly is something going on in our culture – and merely dismissing it as invented, imported or exaggerated (even if in some cases the “evidence” base for it is invented, imported or exaggerated) won’t help and obviously winds up those who, in good faith, advance the sort of worry that Nick does.

What I said on the show was that I do think we need to worry very, very hard – in terms of politicians, university staff and students – about what I might summarise as “decentralised social media judgement”. When I talk to student officers, for example, about even expressing a view on higher education policy in public, they say they don’t want to have put their head above the parapet – because they might look silly, they are worried about getting a job in future years, or because someone might shout at them on social media.

That is the vanishing point for me. Framing a particular version of it in a particular set of student societies as “quiet no platforming” I think is unhelpful – but trying to understand the way in which mass higher education and social media causes us to be much more careful about what we do and say in public is important, and should worry us.

My basic hypothesis runs like this. We have a generation of young people and students who aren’t just digital natives, but social media natives.

Every aspect of their lives can be shared – including emotions and intimacy – often without their control or contest. Often their “real lives” end up captured, quoted, filmed and shared too. And every one of those posts or images are up for collective, largely uncontrollable judgement – both with likes and dislikes, and endless uncontrollable commentary from others unable to exercise collective control over the impact on the individual.

In many ways, these tools are extraordinarily democratic. They have repeatedly allowed accountability to flow towards those who have previously escaped it through the supposedly “fair” rules of process and justice, and given a platform to the marginalised in ways that no diversity initiatives ever got close to previously. But, if this makes sense, there’s obviously little accountability over that accountability – because the individual acts are “micro” or anonymous, they rarely count as actionable harassment – so we default to critiquing the platforms or campuses that host them instead.

In other words, social media both enables instant, extreme and “unbalanced” forms of accountability, but as a result also encourages those who use it to be extremely careful about what they say and how they say it for fear of being judged.

There’s some great research around that backs up my theory. In this fascinating study for example, social media offered the opportunity for young people to connect to friends, family, and like-minded people as a source of support and well-being. But because social media can support more hostile social contexts, many highlighted user anonymity, miscommunication and misunderstanding, and the dramatic experience of peer evaluation as harmful to well-being. Previous research had also indicated that neurological developments in the young can lead both to increased risk-taking and impulsivity, and increased sensitivity to rewards.

Meanwhile in this study, “privacy” concerns arising from taking part in online social networks increased levels of self-censorship. In other words – partly for longer term reputational issues and partly for emotional response reasons, the more that people thought their material could be judged, the more careful people were about generating material. And in this study, students sought to avoid conflicts they witnessed when outspoken members of their networks engaged with people with whom they disagreed. “Impression management” and perceived identity threats led them to limit political expression despite having strong interest in and feelings about politics.

I need not, hopefully, point at the myriad studies that show that student mental health generally and student anxiety specifically is through the roof, and I hope it’s obvious that campuses are more diverse than ever (involving more and more students who are less confident about their position in society and their future) and a generation that is proud to be progressive about that diversity. If we have a highly anxious student body, it would be helpful if we could view self-censorship through the lens of mental health – and if there are “social justice” warriors around, it would be cool if we could listen to their concerns about discrimination rather than dismiss them as imagined.

Ironically, now that Michelle Donelan is over in DCMS, she’s preparing to dismantle the few protections that were proposed for adults in terms of harassment, pile-ons and bullying on social media. If we learn the lessons from the research, it’s a good bet that doing so will cause students and young people that are over 18 to be even less likely to explore their own views in public – either in person or on social media. Creating the ability for alt-right grifters to sue an SU for having second thoughts about inviting them isn’t going to help.

But it also seems to me that politicians are the very last people that ought to be legislating on all of this without more careful thought. They are lightning rods for social media abuse, and likely find it highly alarming. But while they now have a thicker skin over it all, they either want the ringleaders to be brought to justice, the participants to be educated in the old ways of accountability, or to help others with unfashionable views to “grow a backbone”.

One day soon they’ll work out that there are rarely ringleaders, we’re never going back to “fair” accountability unless you close Twitter, and that telling someone to “grow a pair” is the last thing you should do to someone suffering from anxiety.

2 responses to “Is it “quiet no platforming” or inevitable anxiety?

  1. A very interesting read. The issue I have with OfS (and Daily Mail headlines!) and even HEPI is the narrative appears to somewhat demonise HE for not being in control of what is a wider social phenomenon. The bill and subsequent recommendations by HEPI (albeit latter aim to simplify the former) are still problematic in that they are attempting to regulate social behaviour, assuming that it’s possible to do so by setting up a better complaints process (and, worse, punishable regulation when issues occur). What was particularly ironic was that on Twitter this morning HEPI was sharing links to the report/opinion pieces (fair enough as it gets the message out to stimulate discussion), yet whenever users questioned or commented on anything related to the report (a social exchange representing free speech) HEPI were quick to interject, being defensive, somewhat argumentative and condescending to those that had a different viewpoint/experience. So much for their views on being “free and fair”.

  2. Interesting quote from the “driving force” (and “friend of the show” of WonkHE).

    Unfortunately as with everything he was involved with in government it was ill thought through and poorly designed. Hard to think of anyone who has had a more damaging impact on the HE sector than this former SpAD (certainly nobody who’s never attracted a vote). Intellectually incurious, dogmatic and an example of how the current government have no grasp of the value of our education system. Very much hope readers don’t have more of the recycled A-Level essays to look forward to now he’s “free to speak”….

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