“If you don’t do something to protect your students, it will come back worse than ever before”

YUSU President Samara Jones doubles down on her condemnation of anonymous confession pages in an exclusive interview with York Vision.

No longer can anyone blame YUSU for taking a weak stance on anonymous social media platforms. 

In a fortnight where torrents of racially charged posts have attracted anger from the University community, the Students Union followed the University and their BAME representatives in standing up, and speaking out against a practice that has acted to “crystallize hate”. 

The University of York Students’ Union (YUSU) condemns the racism and harassment filled posts on anonymous social media platforms, including Yorfess1 (facebook), Yorkmemes and Hez East Fess. Pages, including these, have abused and bullied students, student groups and staff members alike. The pages create a palpable hostility at our University, they have failed to provoke any meaningful debate or discourse and have instead perpetuated hate through our University community. This is unacceptable. 

(Full statement can be found at https://yusu.org/news/article/anon-platforms)

In the wake of this statement, I sat down with YUSU President Samara Jones about the Union’s new, direct, and uncompromising stance.

She started by explaining the support systems students attacked by these pages can access. While Steph Hayle’s new anonymous reporting system has been recently celebrated, it is important to emphasise the existing sources for individual relief.

“If you are being personally targeted contact either the University Support Team or the YUSU Advice and Support centre. It’s the sort of thing that will be different for every individual, but we have got our Advice and Support centre there to help you in these cases, and they will be able to get you in contact with the correct people in the University to support you through things. We got frustrated and upset with the University because we’ve not only seen our friends in the team be harassed online, we’ve seen our groups be. We’ve felt some of that pain because we’re here to represent you and we love representing all of the amazing groups – we go on and on and on about the groups that we have, but then when we see them having to go through this and having to handle this – nobody should have to handle this. 

So we’ve really had some upsetting conversations with the University telling them they need to do something, and so now we’re standing up and saying it. But if you yourself are a victim of this, report what you can, send in whatever screenshots you can, and contact our Advice centre because they’re the professionals. They know better than I do how to support you through something like this. They know where you can get the proper support. 

Hopefully, as a community, we can stamp this out, but contact Advice and Support and they’ll support you; it’s their job.”

One of the most striking aspects of the YUSU statement was a call to submit any information regarding students involved – students reporting students. Samara was insistent against first glance claims that this holds Orwellian qualities

“It’s your decision. But if you know someone’s done something wrong, then we’re asking you if you would like to come forward and say it. That’s the only way we’ll be able to do anything. 

We’re looking at it in this context online with more than just simple kids play, we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about hate speech at times. Actually, you might want to call it out. You don’t have to. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you don’t have to. But actually, I think a lot of students are fed up. And if you know the people that are doing this and if you know that somebody’s posting this, then you can do something. And that is the only way we can do it. We’ve looked at and we’ve tried to encourage the University to do something because we have no control. We don’t control Facebook, we don’t control any of the groups as much as people would love to say that we do, but actually, the only way you can stop something happening is by calling it out.

While these are certainly unprecedented efforts, the potential punishment for ‘admins’ reverts back to familiar University policy.

“There’s been a review of Regulation Seven, which is the Student Conduct one, and we’ve tried to encourage them to make sure it includes online as well. So talking about how we can protect students online, but also actually, what more can they do to make sure it’s in their rules and regulations, so that it really sets out that we are looking at your behaviour in a way that if you have somebody attack you or harass you online, then you’re protected as well. It doesn’t just count in the classroom.”

Social media platforms, however, have repeatedly asserted their freedom of speech and opinion in rather than an intent to harass or abuse. In their “final statement” (dated 12 June), the anonymous Facebook confessions page “Yorfess” insisted that “even those you disagree with have a right to their own opinion. The right to freedom of speech includes speech that may be considered ‘insensitive'”.

Samara Jones, however, affirmed that this should be coupled with accountability.

“Working with Student Media, you get a lot of training. You’re taught. We’ve got a lawyer that you speak to so you know that you’re abiding by media law. Actually, these platforms are not too dissimilar in some ways, because you are as an admin publishing content. You are then the provider. So it’s just like when you write something for Vision, you post it on the Vision website, you’re posting this content. There’s a whole load of things about freedom of speech and academic freedom of speech, and I know that we’re asking the University to clarify where they can support us on that because we want to make sure that we’re allowing our students to learn as much as they can by sharing a variety of opinions and voices. But we don’t need, we don’t want and we can’t have that clashing with hate speech, because hate speech isn’t okay. So it’s trying to find the fine line, but actually, you’ve got to know that if you are an admin for these sites you are responsible legally for what’s posted on them. It’s not just us saying we think they are responsible, legally you are because you’re posting this content. So the easiest comparison is: think about it as if you’re running streaming media. It’s a similar comparison, only these people have just been able to remain anonymous.”

The idea of accountability, and that the platforms are “unable to moderate their content anything close to an acceptable manner”, is stressed in the YUSU statement. However, Samara does not seem keen to condemn the idea of “confession pages” outright.

I think we know there is value in these sorts of pages. We know that at times students don’t necessarily want to come forward with their own thoughts because they don’t want it to be known that that’s them. But there’s a comfort in being able to say something, and no one actually be able to attach it to you because maybe you’re just a bit shy, or you just want to put out that slightly embarrassing question and see what other people say, or you’ve just got a really funny story. But again, you don’t quite want yourself attached to it. So there is a place for it. And actually, I’d say initially, these sites, I think, worked well. They were funny; students enjoyed them. 

But then I think, in the most simple way, they started to get mean. And that turned from being just mean into hate and targeting. If you write an article about someone they have a right of reply. But on these sites, no one has a right of reply. At times they have named people, or they’ve very, very, very carefully not named someone, but they’ve said that you’re the president of this club. So everyone knows who they’re referring to. People need to be accountable to what they say. I think, yeah, there is some sort of place for it. Actually, that’s why we’ve worked on getting our online feedback platform, which is slightly different, and it doesn’t take that gap of your online funny stories, but actually, if you do want something to change, and you have a valid point, it won’t ever help just posting it into the online ether. You need to bring it to us; you need to suggest it. We’ve always tried to be quite open. If you’ve got something you want to try, drop us a message. Come see us. Prior to COVID, we were literally in a glass box. You could just walk past and see any of our offices – we’re always very open. I’ve worked with so many students. I think I said this in my Love York Award speech: we haven’t always agreed, but if you always agree at something, you’ll never get any value out of it. There’s so much value in disagreeing, working together, and coming to a place that is actually better than either of the original starting points. So, there is a place for these sorts of platforms, but not in the format that they’re currently operating at. Because the format that are currently at is at times just disgusting. 

There’s a place for this sort of thing because students like those funny stories about when my landlord did this weird thing or my friend did this stupid thing. But there’s not a place for racism. There’s not a place for hate speech on our campus.

This strong position, however, must be uncomfortable for some of the upcoming officers. Brian “Wally” Terry was repeatedly promoted on several platforms, and it became a political talking point when candidates used their admin-status as sources of pride.

“I think you just have to be aware of these platforms. When you’re a SABB, you just have to be aware of all social media, but I think these pages can cause so much hate and upset that you just have to be so aware of it and so careful of it. It’s really difficult because you can’t restrict people’s freedom of speech. But it’s not fair. And it’s not okay for that to make people feel unsafe to come onto campus, it’s not fair for people to not be comfortable where they live. 

So to the incoming officers, I think just make sure you decide what you want to do. As a team this year, we have decided to not interact with them. The most interactions have been if we’ve been directly tagged in things. I know that the Community and Wellbeing officer traditionally, gets tagged in a lot of welfare cases, so of course they’re going to respond letting you know where you can find the support. But other than that, we’ve not really had an engagement with it as much as we can, because that’s our choice. 

So I think they need to make a decision. It’s their choice if they want to stand by our statement, but from discussions I’ve had with Patrick, I think they probably will. But that’s their decision, not ours.”

YUSU President-in-waiting Patrick O’Donnell made a striking commitment by clearly setting out his position on the online platforms from an early stage. However, this also led to criticisms of the current committee, with accusations that it took the monumental societal movement of “Black Lives Matter” to force an official response.

“I think I would say to them we’ve never tried to shut these sites down. But I know officers have struggled to deal with these because they’ve seen the effect it can have on students; they’ve seen the effect it can have on their peers. I know that our team when it all got bad because of Coronavirus when it first came to York, sat down and told the University: “If you don’t do something to protect your students, it will come back worse than ever before”.

I know that I sat in meetings in Hes Hall, upset and frustrated and angry that they weren’t necessarily understanding just how bad these sites could be, because they are being racist, misogynistic, but also that they could just really hurt people by targeting groups and individuals. I sat there and was basically crying, trying to get them to understand the frustration that we feel. 

But we were also trying to tell them, there is a need and there is a place for some sort of expression that students get through this. But the current format of the way that it was running was not okay. So, we’ve tried doing stuff directly with the University – not publicly. I know we had Maddie who wrote a SABBs in Short email asking people to be kind and the following week she got targeted online. So by trying to call out in a gentle way, and then being targeted, it has been taken us a while to come and say something out loud. But actually, we’re now at the place, we know that a lot of students are also in support of that, because they also want to say something out loud. 

So maybe we should have done something sooner. But I’d like to think that people will understand that it’s a difficult thing to be ready to do at times because of how difficult these sites can be. And it’s that fear of putting yourself – not the fear. It’s being ready to stand up and say something, acknowledging that we probably will get backlash from this. But actually, it’s the right thing to do. We’re going to stand up and say that we do not agree with what’s happened. And it’s the right thing to do. Maybe it did take such a big movement and so many people indicating they’re also ready for something like this. But it is said now. 

We’ve been working on this for a week or so now trying to get it right, because we know that we’d rather take longer to do it and do it right than rush it and not do it right. So maybe we should have done that sooner. But this is when we’re ready. And I think we’ve got it right. And we’ve said it strongly now.”

In their statement, YUSU further talked about their efforts to “reduce the damage these pages cause for the community at York”. However, this behind the scenes approach was set in contrast to the direct statement by BAME officers Fiks and Simi. Samara set out how she envisioned these working alongside each other.

“I think there is there is a need for more active [approaches] now because actually, I know that the SABBs prior to us tried to make the University aware of what’s happening. But we’ve done more of the behind the scenes work. We’ve tried because we wanted to try and fix it for students, but it didn’t work. And we’ve kind of shown that by this is what we’ve done in the last four or five months. We’ve got the University to – we tried to get the University to do more and they are restricted. 

But they’ve not really come out and said that much about it. And we bring it up at meetings. I was talking about it a couple of days ago with the Vice Chancellor in a couple of days, and the same day with the Director of Academic Registrar. So we’ve spoken to the University about it quite passionately, quite emotionally. And I think there’s a place for both. There’s a place for calling it out. I know that the part time officers are currently working on something to call it out as well, which the sabbatical team are behind. But the time’s almost up to be quiet on these matters now. We’ve tried just doing what we can. But that’s not enough. So that’s why we’re now standing up and saying something else. So they work together, and they always have done, but we’re more at the point where we as SABBs can have all the contact with University we can do that, but we also need to stand up and we need the student community to join us in that because we can’t, just as the representatives of the staff in the Union, we can’t just be the ones. We need our members, our students to also stand up and call out. Because as a union, we’re only as strong as our weakest member.”

However, Samara was insistent that the University’s actions did not amount to “a culture of resistance”.

“I think initially, in my experience, there was somewhat a lack of understanding of exactly how these sites work, and I think we did overcome that. I know they face difficulties because of the anonymity around it, but it took a while for them to understand what the sites were doing and how bad it was. It took a while for them to take it as seriously as we needed it to be taken. We did say that if they didn’t do enough, it would come back worse and it has. I know the individuals I work with are trying, but it’s just that matter of I’m not sure they have done enough. And I don’t think it’s because of a lack of care. I think it’s because they don’t necessarily understand what this means for a lot of people, and in a way, they’re looking to us to do something, but actually, we should be looking to them.

I think during my time as President, I’ve felt more supported by some of the senior members of the University, particularly the Vice Chancellor, than most teams have at York before and many teams have around the country before. We have an exceptional relationship with the Vice Chancellor, and he is always willing to lend an ear. We met with Fiks and Simi, our BAME officers, early last week with the Vice Chancellor, and he reached out to try and get into contact with them. He’s very active in himself; he will never try and say that he’s perfect, but if you give him problem, he will do his best to try and find a solution. But he can’t be the one to fix everything. It needs to be a culture change. I think I’ve noticed particularly since we’ve been dealing with Coronavirus, there’s been some better communication from the University. It’s been quite refreshing to see change happen over the last couple of months, albeit some of that’s needed to because they really needed to work out how to put degrees online and assessments online, and it’s probably only a crisis that will make that happen so fast, but I’m hopeful that some of this agility that’s been gained through this situation can be carried forward because everything takes a long, long time to get through in the University and I’ve been asking for them to just try and make sure they understand how it is. I think there is an appetite within the university to make sure they actually have the right committees and the right procedures. But it takes time to happen. 

I have felt supported by the University. And actually, that is a question that I speak to the Vice Chancellor about in our AGM session. It won’t always be perfect, but I have felt supported, and it is that not always agreeing, but finding an agreement is where you get your best answers. But also knowing when actually – let’s try and get this thing. And this isn’t great, but we’re going to just have to work through it.”

With Samara’s eagerness for a more active stance on online platforms, the question remained as to whether this would be shared by the University.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been trying to ask them to do. And I know that on a separate but somewhat related issue for the Black Lives Matter, that students have been emailing calling for a more direct stance. I know that the University provided a quote to yourself and to Nouse last week, and when I read it, I personally thought that actually it was the same as what they’d said many times before. And I told a couple of the senior staff that it’s the same as what you said before, but it doesn’t feel very strong. It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to tackle it; you’re signposting the correct information, you’re signposting important support, which is absolutely what they should be doing, but I didn’t feel a strength from it. So I think that the University do need to be a little bit braver in some things and just be a bit more direct, and really come up to support students. And I would like to think that the student body will surprise us and actually share that support and appreciate it.”

Samara left with a final statement, directly levelled at the platforms.

“We’re all human. We all have feelings, and we can all be upset. But also, we’re all human, so please don’t target individuals. Please don’t target people because of their race, because of their sexuality, because of their gender, because of anything. I think just be very aware of what you post online and think: how would you feel if someone said that about you? It’s great to have a space for fun story sharing, but it’s not great to have a space for hate and bullying.

The University of York‘s position on Anonymous Social Media Platforms is as follows:

“It is absolutely unacceptable for anyone to post racist and discriminatory material, and we have clear policies regarding the use of social media, where students can face disciplinary action.

“With no control over the posting of anonymous content on external websites and social media platforms, we have been taking action where we can, including reporting offensive material to the platform host.

“We are committed to investigating incidents and applying our policies where offending students are identifiable. Further information can be found here:https://www.york.ac.uk/about/departments/support-and-admin/sas/student-misconduct/

Image Credit: YUSU