Quashing hate and discrimination is something universities are always aiming to do, but what if it happens via social media? This article will address possible solutions for addressing Instant Messaging discrimination at universities.
Since 1997, social media has provided a quick, free, and fun way for people to stay connected. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter act as a window into communities we otherwise would never hear of day to day.
In 2011, Facebook launched its Messenger, allowing users to have informal chats with other Facebook users. Messenger was an instant hit and today is used by 11 percent of the world’s entire population on a regular basis. It’s particularly popular amongst students.
Although Messenger has many benefits to its users, higher education law authorities have been expressing concern at the rising cases of this medium being used for discrimination and harassment. Keep reading for more details…
Abusive messaging has been increasing rapidly at Universities
In 2018, Exeter University instigated an investigation with police after it was found that a number of its law students had been exchanging racist messages via the popular WhatsApp messaging platform.
The messages were said to contain content which encouraged gang rape, slavery, and the stabbing of a non-white student. The messages, which were shared on Facebook, also said that the Bracton Law Society should be ‘for whites only’ and that black people ‘should be sent home’.
Far from being an isolated incident, the investigation at Exeter University only highlights a growing trend for using popular messaging platforms for abuse, harassment, and discrimination.
Figures show a distinct increase in abusive messages on social media platforms; an increase of 45 percent in just one year. This has prompted calls for universities to do more to tackle the problem.
What does the law surrounding Online Discrimination Say?
The Metropolitan Police state that, ‘If a person sends you threatening, abusive or offensive messages via Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, they could be committing an offence.’ The most relevant offences online are ‘harassment’ and ‘malicious communications’.
For harassment to be committed, there must have been a clear ‘course of conduct’ – that is, two or more related occurrences. The messages do not necessarily have to be violent in nature but would need to have caused some alarm or distress.
Receiving racist or discriminatory messages can be extremely distressing and yet, many people don’t report these to the police as they feel that it’s not serious enough to involve the law, or that no action will be taken once reported.
As a result of the lack of incidents not reported, many people feel that it is the responsibility of the university or college to lay down the law when it comes to abusive messaging.
Should Universities Step Up to Eradicate Online Discrimination?
University staff have been under increasing pressure to stamp out abusive messaging after the Warwick ‘rape chat scandal’ in 2018, whereby a group of female students were targeted in a series of messages described by the perpetrators as ‘lads chat’.
The explicit messages about the female students included comments such as ‘Rape the whole flat to teach them a lesson’ and other vulgar content. Despite overwhelming evidence, Vice Chancellor Professor Stuart Croft wrote to the women involved, saying that he found “no evidence of procedural irregularity or bias” and declared the investigation closed.
Outraged students immediately created the hashtag #ShameOnWarwick and eventually, one student was expelled and others were excluded for 10 years. Although, shockingly this was subsequently reduced to just 12 months.
Understandably, the women involved were left feeling helpless and abandoned by the staff whose job it is to protect them.
Nottingham Trent University Paves the Way
It’s clear that universities have a mammoth task ahead of them when it comes to harmful messaging. A spokesperson for Universities UK says:
“Misuse of social media and online platforms has become increasingly widespread in society and with a near universal reach among 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK, universities need to consider the specific threats online harassment and cyberbullying as part of their duty of care to all students.”
Realistically, this means that universities need to put in place solid policies regarding abusive messaging between students. It should be made clear within those policies that any content which is considered harassment or discriminatory will not be tolerated.
To back this up, institutions will need to get tough when it comes to penalties for those behind abusive messaging, such as immediate dismissal and the involvement of the police.
Nottingham Trent University made headlines in 2021 when it withdrew an offer to an applicant who, it was discovered, had repeatedly used a derogative term on social media in relation to some black players on the England football team.
In 2022, more universities need to follow Nottingham’s lead and delete abusive messaging from their campuses once and for all.
There is a difference between ‘banter’ and harrasement…
Far from being banter or ‘a bit of fun’, harassment and discrimination can cause real harm to those on the receiving end. Any university which ignores or plays down this harmful trend is, quite simply, adding to the problem.
Only when universities begin to take these messages seriously will we then be able to put an end to this cruel and distressing trend for students. Students should also be encouraged to report any such behaviour to the university and police.
The more support shown from such institutions the more likely these issues are to delt with constructively. By working together, university staff and students can help to make harassment and discrimination a thing of the past.