Over the past week, five students associated with Exeter’s Bracton Law Society, have been exposed as being openly, and disgustingly racist in a Whatsapp group chat. Not only were there horrific ‘jokes’ made about ethnicity, rape, and slave trading; there were slogans created, suggesting branding the Law Society: “BractonfortheBritish”. Not only did it shock the University of Exeter to the core, but it exposed a tide of racism, sexism and homophobia in a private group chat that no-one expected. Each of the authors of these messages were suspended, stripped of any roles within the society or in any other employment, and are pending further investigation. One also lost a training contract with a prestigious Law firm in London. Exeter University has completely condemned these actions, saying “The University of Exeter does not tolerate any form of racist, sexist or bigoted behaviour and is committed to eradicating any instances of discrimination and harassment that may arise.”
The investigation follows a separate incident involving the arrest of two men after a black student at Nottingham Trent University, Rufaro Chisango, was subjected to racist abuse in her hall of residence. Chisango posted a video on Wednesday in which a group of men can be heard chanting “we hate the blacks” and “sign the Brexit papers.”
While it is unfathomable how anyone would even think, let alone say the things that have been exposed in these images, many people each year fall victim to the thrall of social media, in a much smaller, but noticeable way. The internet can sometimes seem a world, or space, divorced from reality. A negative comment on an Instagram, a risky joke on a Facebook group chat, a re-tweet of a mildly inappropriate joke. “This isn’t real life”, we might say, “does it really matter?” Yes, of course it does.
Not only do these things remain here for life, for everyone to see – relatives, friends, or future employers, and are easily exposed, as is seen through the recent situation in Exeter. Comments, seemingly undirected at any one person feed into a culture of bad will, bred on the internet, and are read by those who could be affected, deeply hurt and upset by things that others say on the Internet. Just because it’s on the ‘far off realm’ of social media, doesn’t make it okay.
In the US, the amount of suicides as a result of a negative experience on social media has skyrocketed, with 87% of Year 12 girls who used social media every day being 14% more likely to be depressed than those who used social media less frequently. The scariest thing about social media, is that it lulls people into a false sense of security, meaning they will say and do things that in real life would never occur to them. What people think is a private network becomes a public opinion in seconds, with the click of a tiny little button.
Yes, free speech is a right. But free speech used in a malicious, or disgusting way to make others feel small, put down, or inferior, is not.
And although the internet can be a space filled with inexcusable and horrific comments, it can also be a space for good. Social media can build support, rally friendships, connect us to movements we would never have known about before, and it seems important to remind ourselves of that fact too. How many of us have had our day brightened by a surprise message from a friend, or that GIF you were tagged in that made you the literal representation of the crying laughing emoji?
There are many campaigns working towards trying to eradicate the presence of racism, sexism, homophobia and online bullying from social media, for example Exeter’s own #NeverOK movement. HCX stands completely behind these movements, and will continue to speak out against the presence of online hatred. Let’s breed some positivity here girls! Hatred should never win.