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Our year in tech

A critical look at the role of social media in the polarization of campus politics

This time last year, the world was focused on the Mid-East – in particular, the movement termed the “Arab Spring.”

It was not just the movement that garnered global attention, but also the method. The thing that distinguished the Arab Spring from previous civilian movements in the Mid-East was that the citizens – the oppressed, the affected, the people who had the most to say as well as the most to gain – were the ones who started the movement, and partially on the internet to boot. It has been speculated that the spread and success of the Arab Spring movement was largely dependent on the boundless reaches of Facebook, Twitter, online blogs, and videos; that the attempts to restrict access to internet led to only more civil unrest; that social media is the new Gutenberg press.

In all of these arguments, there exists the innate assumption that social media exists for the dissemination of existing ideas, rather than the creation of new ones. And while, as evident in the Middle East, technology can bring people together under a common cause, it can also accentuate and exacerbate people’s differences.

Which brings me to a topic much closer to us. This year, we have been immersed in a litany of social movements, student movements, demonstrations, and protests – all on our campus and in our city.

These movements have come in a barrage, beginning with the MUNACA strike that started off the school year, carrying through to the student strikes opposing tuition hikes that occupies headlines today. They have been persistent and omnipresent. The sounds, the sights, the conflicts, and the opinions have been swirling all year, surrounding us regardless of what corner of campus we stand on; they stare back at us from our Facebook news feeds; they’re tweeted to us during SSMU meetings; they’re livestreamed to us during the AUS GA.

As a result, we have never been more than a few steps away from campus politics – available on our Facebooks, our inboxes, our smartphones and twitters. Going home does not take us away from politics, rhetoric, or opinions. In fact, it brings us closer to the issues that our campus has become steeped in.

We have heard about – and likely felt – the divisiveness among the student population at McGill in response to these issues. We have heard the phrase “We are all McGill,” over and over, first from Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, and then from students seeking to establish student unity; whether or not these words have convinced anybody is dubious.

But this statement is not untrue. We are all McGill, despite a new level of polarization on campus thanks to clashing political agendas. The 2011 – 2012 school year was not the year in which we all suddenly  realized we disagree with one another; rather,  it was the year in which we saw the development of factions within our university. And it was even more than that – more than the creation of student groups that believe in different things; this was the year that those student groups were publicly pitted against each other through the wonders of technology.

And how plentiful the technology available to us was. Facebook groups were formed daily, it seemed. Open letters were written instead of term papers. MROs were sent before, during and after any group of thirty or more people holding signs walked near campus. Tweets featured hashtags inevitably including the word strike. Blogs aimed to expose MUNACA, SSMU, and Mob Squad. All possible forms of social media were used, but they all seemed to converge on Facebook.

Facebook comments became the prominent way to espouse opinions, and statuses became the medium through which we gave our support, mocked our opponents, linked our preferred publications, and advertised our demonstrations. Groups and events with names of ever-increasing word counts began accumulating members and Mobile Uploads became inundated with photos of police cars and masses of students.

But these Facebook goings-on are not always civil – comments in groups such as ModPAC are policed for offensive content, a fact that seems out of place in a group that attempts to foster discussion. But the harsh comments and sharp-toned debates have not been limited to groups; they have shown up beneath events, statuses, and photos.

It has long been said that the internet makes people brave because it renders them anonymous. But it is more than mere anonymity that has permitted this year’s online discourse, if you could call it anything as polite as that. After all, there is nothing anonymous about signing your name, year, and faculty to an open letter to the administration. There is nothing anonymous about posting a comment or a status or a photo when your name is proudly displayed beside it.

The reason, I would posit, that people are braver on the internet, or at least more vocal, is not because it makes them anonymous, but because it makes them less human. When you need to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone, it is easier for you to write them a message, and not have to blush and stumble over your words as you address your missteps in person, and it is easier for the recipient to not have to watch your struggle. On the internet, we are all confident in our own opinions and statements, and we read the opinions and statements of others as words on a page, imagining them delivered coolly as though they were self-evident fact. Opinions lose their human edge without the jumbling of words, the ums and ahs. Opinions become something like a manifesto when they are worded so eloquently, so strongly, so readily. Opinions become something to oppose.

The event battle between “The James 6th floor occupiers do not represent me” and “The James 6th floor occupiers do not represent me do not represent me” is the perfect example. In person, this is merely a disagreement, a divergence of opinion. In the Facebook world, it becomes a struggle to dominate the entire discourse.

Much of this year’s unrest has dealt with where the power lies in this institution – the power to raise tuition, the power to direct political discourse, the power to influence others’ opinions. Some would say that bringing these discussions into an online forum gives the power to the students. I would suggest that while the internet is an invaluable tool of dissemination of information, as effective in that sense at McGill as it was in Egypt and Tunisia, it can also take the power away from us, the students, by changing the discourse we want to have and mean to have into a bitter battle for likes and shares.

Bill Wasik states in Wired Magazine’s #Riot feature piece that “our tech can work a strange, dark magic.” But whereas the darkness Wasik is concerned with pertains to the group robbery – termed “flash robs” by some – and the burn-and-loot crowds that cities in both the US and the UK have had to deal with in the past year, I suggest that the darkness lies in the ability of our technology to morph what we have to say, to distort our intentions, and to rob our ideals of their humanity. This is the phenomenon that we must shine a light on; this is the phenomenon that divides our campus.