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Equipping students to respond to the challenges of social media

The internet gives us a new platform to tackle social injustices and engage in activism of various kinds, but is it all just hot air?
It’s really important going into these conversations to make sure that we’re not saying social media is great and a complete force for good and will never do any wrong in the world, because it is an incredibly dangerous tool in some senses. And just… you can see just how easy it would be to just spread awareness about things that just don’t actually exist or aren’t actually true. So I think that there are numerous issues kind of at stake. So at first we’ve got to talk about anti-social media. So that’s basically a branding for hate speech. So hate speech is essentially when you are able to spread hatred about an ethnicity, a religion, sexuality and things like that.
And my typical logic is: if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face then don’t say it on social media. I think there are some real struggles in place there in terms of when you are sat at a keyboard or on your phone and you’re kind of caught up in the moment. It’s very easy to go kind of a bit Lord of the Flies about the whole thing and think that you don’t feel that you are affecting anyone with what you say, when actually you really, really are.
But I think it’s also, on the flip side of that, important to commend various types of platforms who have made it that students, and the wider population indeed, have had to declare their identity in some form and basically encourage openness and accountability of those things. So I think hate speech is really important. Another problem that we experience quite a lot is… well it’s called slacktivism. Which is the idea that you can be active on social media but that doesn’t necessarily translate into real life.
So to provide an example: lots of students were very active about the idea of leaving the EU but then that was on social media. How many of those students actually went out and voted and kind of transferred the click of the button to the tick of the box, if you like? So that’s a big conversation, that’s about encouraging students that even though they might express their views on one platform, that won’t necessarily have continuous effect on a more kind of tangible platform, if you like. So that is one of our challenges.
I don’t think it’s slacktivism personally; I think activism comes in many forms and this is one of the new forms that it’s coming in; but it’s encouraging students that if they feel passionately about something then be willing to say that on a multitude of platforms rather than just one; which is kind of a very safe place to defend yourself from in some senses. So I think the last thing is this idea of having a digital footprint, which is a relatively new concept but is essentially the idea that if I posted something on Twitter age 14, in ten years time that might appear again in social media and kind of come back to bite me.
And we really have to encourage students, because of that, to be responsible online. Make sure that they post things that they would stand by, and also to basically be aware that if you want to apply for, say, the civil service, or MI5, in ten years time this is something that could stand against you. And it’s having those awarenesses in mind, and it’s also encouraging students
to lock down their accounts: to basically make sure that their opinions are available to those they trust.
In the real world, social and political movements rely on activism: on people getting out and doing things. This might be going on a march, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors, writing letters, lobbying… There’s a wide range of activities that propagate social and political change.
But it’s a lot easier to be active on social media. We can wave our placards without having to leave the house. We can @-mention a politician on Twitter rather than turn up to a surgery meeting. We can sign an e-petition.
Is this digital activism equal to those traditional offline activities? Or does the architecture of social media mean that we end up preaching to the converted? In that regard, is online activism better described as ‘slacktivism’: an easy gesture to appease conscience, that doesn’t achieve anything beyond self-affirmation?
But self-affirmation is not without worth. Positive feedback can help reinforce and validate a position, and online communities can be a starting-place from which to build and foster offline activity. In this video, our Student Union President, Millie Beach, looks at the challenges involved with this and other aspects of online interaction.
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