The Disquieting Silence of the Undergraduates Facebook Group
By Ananya Gupta, UG22
Note : This is both an Opinions and Newsdesk article
On the 24th of September last year , screenshots of comments made on a post on the Undergraduates Facebook Group emerged on public, explicitly right wing, social media handles.The unprecedented violation of our privacy in the form of doxxing compelled the House of Representatives to step in and control damage. In order to protect the students involved, the related posts were deleted and all group members were removed — only to be welcomed back in November with a fresh set of community guidelines enforceable by five moderators appointed by the House of Representatives. The guidelines aimed at preventing future doxxing instances, seem necessary, and yet provide little concrete safeguarding against what we can imagine to be cases of a similar vein. There is practically no way that the group can be made screenshot proof. Having gained some distance and consequently, perspective, it is clear how the incident has irreversibly altered Ashokan culture.
At present the group has a little over 700 members, which suggests that there still is significant reluctance to engage after the doxxing incident. This may indicate that students across batches don’t find the Facebook group to be an inviting and productive space anymore. There has also been an unusual silence on vital political issues like the Farmer’s Protests and Union Budget on the group , which could be because of the natural hesitation to politicise the space. Perhaps, people don’t feel safe engaging anymore because of the fear of the ‘private’ becoming ‘public’ overnight. How does this affect us, change us? What does it do to those who will be part of the community in years to come, those who haven’t witnessed the genesis of this fear? Is fear a culture we inherit?
Before the doxxing incident, the Facebook group was a space that was not just used for publicising events, asking for course reviews, and discussing student politics. It was also an ecosystem of opinions about news, politics, film and everything in between – a place to criticise and express solidarity. From poking fun, to being disenchanted, and sometimes outright livid, about certain happenings, content on the group expressed the whole spectrum of emotions. It all remained archived for what we thought was posterity. We disagreed about things, safe in the knowledge of a shared context and mutual understanding within the student body. We were allowed to say things beyond the conventional tenets of academised ‘constructive engagement’ which, though not absent, weren’t the norm. Looking back ,we see instances of immense trust within the group — (TW) survivors of sexual harassment voiced their stories on the group , and during the CAA-NRC mobilization , protest information was extensively shared with members announcing their personal course of action on the group.
Even on a campus we share, it is hardly ever that an informal cross-batch exchange of opinions can take place at a scale that the virtual space facilitates. Additionally, the online disinhibition effect that people may experience on the group propels them to say what they’re really thinking more easily online.
This is not to disavow that perhaps the Ashokan student body took itself for granted, in assuming Ashokan homogeneity to a large degree. Perhaps, we conflated the vocal section for the student body to be the entire student body, and more often than not, the deficit in constructive engagement became a sore point within the student body itself. But the culture was evolving, slowly but surely. The need for it to reform had been recognised in the growing criticism of the relentless backlash that the Facebook group spurted out against ideological opponents. In the midst of this complex evolution, complicated further by a pandemic-induced rise in online activity, the doxxing incident took place. Mindful engagement was passionately discussed in the SG’s open meetings following the incident, and was the core edifice that informed the creation of the community guidelines.
The guidelines that have come to govern the group in the wake of the incident are vague and jargonistic, like all contracts are. What’s interesting is the caveat it makes in a few clauses to exclude moderation of those in the act of calling others out for their ‘problematic’ behaviour. For instance, it explicitly states: “Content that violates the privacy of others, including doxxing, unwarranted mentions, photoshopped pictures etc. is disallowed and shall be removed accordingly.This clause excludes calling out someone for ‘problematic behaviour’. ” What does this entail? Does this mean doxxing is allowed as long as an individual has adequate reason to consider a post problematic? And if individual thresholds of ‘problematic’ is what we’re going for, how do we prevent a rerun of last September’s fiasco?
While terms like hate-speech and cyberbullying are defined with some veracity, the term ‘problematic’ remains undefined and contingent upon the discretion of the moderators, or worse, on the members of the group itself. Perhaps it is this daunting subjectivity that has pushed discussions onto the ‘very safe lane’. When the guidelines read: “Contents of the group that can harm members of the group or the university at large must not be shared with people or organisations outside”, it implies that the freedom to criticise the power structures within the University and hold them accountable can be curtailed. For instance , by this definition, publishing opinion pieces about workers’ grievances that is contingent on opinions expressed by the group on public platforms is liable to have punitive consequences.
According to the guidelines, posts and comments spreading ‘misinformation’ will be deleted and issued a formal warning. Right leaning individuals might argue that leftists are spreading misinformation regarding the farmer’s protests to gain sympathies and vice versa. In the face of little verifiability regarding ongoing protests, how will the student moderators try to solve these core ideological differences? It is important to remember that with every move to control damage, we also stamp out the possibility of growth. As members of the student body we must realise, the solution to polarisation is not minimising contact. Even though that’s not what the guidelines espouse, it is the implicit fear of a doxxing incident repeating itself, and the blurriness of the guidelines that has created an air of wariness around engaging with the group. On the contrary, Social psychologists believe that sustained intergroup contact that includes a genuine exchange of ideas is a key driver in gaining perspective and developing empathy. Instead of letting an organic collective conscience grow, something we see happening in student politics now, in some ways, the guidelines impose upon students the facade of civility.
The group cannot stay representative of what real students are actually thinking about things that matter, and in this specific sense, it will have lost its authenticity. To a new student joining the group, who hasn’t taken the effort to scroll back months, the Facebook group says nothing about what Ashokans think of the outside world because those opinions make them vulnerable to external, and now also internal forces. On the surface, we seem to be avoiding conflict, but the internal friction this creates eats away at our community’s ethos and our trust for each other.
Will this abstinence from candid political speech become the norm or can coming batches change this? The new batches potentially run the risk of missing out on this broad avenue of discourse and developing an impaired sense of community. It takes a hell lot of time, trust and understanding to build a safe space. A safe space is fragile, kept afloat by our everyday interactions and it can be punctured overnight and have lasting repercussions. Even though the guidelines are well-intentioned, the re-creation of a safe space by a choice few is virtually impossible if the entire community does not participate and commit to rebuilding it.