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Featured Reports Shouting online: Social media is driving an ugly tone in debates

A riot squad stands by as students block an entrance to a university in Montreal in 2012.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Protests on campuses can be no less angry than they were in the sixties and early seventies but they are less violent; the unthinkable shooting of Vietnam-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio was 47 years ago.

Yet now, the shouting and name-calling, the polarization and populism, can leave the impression that we have returned to Vietnam-era extremes on campuses. But there is a key factor that makes the expression of dissent a different kind of phenomenon today.

"I think university activism does go through cycles," says Toronto's York University president Rhonda Lenton. And while few would argue that we are at the same level of antagonism, the difference this time is that social media ramps up the volume.

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"You've got everybody with a smart phone shaping the story. And not only that, people will start talking before they even really know all the facts," says Dr. Lenton, a sociologist who has taught on issues of gender, health and sexual violence.

"[People] have a greater inclination for just partial pieces of the story and for miscommunication to go on. And that definitely has changed the way in which universities have to function in a number of respects."

Whether active protests or simply political discussions, schools now have to address a new, mercurial tone of debate, which can surprise academics unaccustomed to hairtrigger harassment or the assault on traditional sources of information and news. And it's a heightened tone that often comes from anonymous voices in ugly tweets and posts, including derogating activist students as being fragile, pandered "snowflakes."

With social media, "there are so many different platforms now, when it comes to holding debates and having a politically charged environment," says Cam Yung, an undergraduate student studying biology at Queen's University in Kingston. He serves as rector, officially representing the interests of students at the school.

The ways in which social media disrupts the debate can even surprise students participating in campus debates.

"I'll give you an example. There were a couple of protests taking place, but I saw only about five or six people participating," Mr. Yung says. He was struck by the low turnout. They would usually bring out more supporters and detractors. But then Mr. Yung remembered the protests weren't happening so much in front of him, but online.

Debates are now held on whatever app is convenient, and "I think that's where you see outlandish behaviour. Behind a keyboard you can say almost anything you want," Mr. Yung notes.

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For universities, this means having to respond more quickly and more transparently to what can feel like a barrage of vitriol. "For one, we have to be much more nimble ourselves with anything that occurs on campus, with our own ability to share information as quickly as possible," says York's Dr. Lenton.

"Because it is so easy [for people] to put out the story, even anonymously if you want to, I think universities have a particular role to play in educating students in how to have robust, but respectful, clashes of ideas, which rise above personal attacks, hate, discrimination," she says.

It can be difficult, though, and how to do this is itself open to debate.

An opinion piece in The New York Times in April by Ulrich Baer, a professor of comparative literature and a vice-provost at New York University, drew controversy by questioning free speech if it drowns out minority voices.

He made the point that free speech can, at times, prevent other voices from being heard, if the onus is too much on the hard, overarching debate, without allowing the discussion to make room for more personal experience. Restricting talk of personal experience, especially when it is outside the majority view, can hurt minorities and prevent their experiences from being properly heard, he argues.

"The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks," he wrote. "It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community."

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The major controversy arose over the fact that he suggested the possible need in some cases to curtail, or at least balance, freedom of speech, so that, for instance, activist students can be heard. "Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute," but something that requires the "continuing examination of its parameters," he wrote.

Of course this is contrary to the belief that any form of restriction on free speech means an attempt to control speech and that going down that road in any way is anathema to open discourse, not only in universities, but in all of society. (New York University's provost expressed publicly that free speech is paramount at the school.)

Yet the debate around what exactly is fair and reasoned debate is intensified by social media and the vitriol that exists there, Mr. Yung at Queen's suggested.

"We've become very accustomed to being so sensitive, when it comes to being challenged on our thoughts," he said. "We feel we are being attacked, and therefore we attack the other individual, which is not right in any capacity. But being behind the keyboard takes away the function of holding a polite debate. ... That blue screen really locks you into one thought and one ideology. It's dangerous."

There are attempts at universities to take protests and debate back out of social media, to more respectful ground.

"A lot of universities are paying more attention to how we can share that message in the classroom, through conferences, making sure that our students have ways to connect, especially in a large university like York, ... through clubs, through associations, so that they don't feel isolated," Dr. Lenton said.

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Peter Chow-White, associate professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication in Burnaby, B.C., and a specialist in information technology, data mining and social media, sees something more: It is not just a problem with social media, but with underlying economic conditions, which are worsening the fervour of protests and debate on social media.

"People, especially baby boomers, have this very visceral vision of protest, and the sixties was what that was all about. That's a very long time ago. We're a couple of generations from that, and those times of unrest were built around an education that was somewhat affordable," he says.

But today, "the context has changed a lot. The world has gotten harder economically. Having student loans is huge, and the ability to pay them off has disappeared." So, this inevitably colours the conversation, he indicates. No matter their political stripe, the widening divide between the haves and have-nots makes people drift further into information silos with their social-media platform of preference, based on shared economic experiences, he argues.

"Now, instead, of having a microphone in a central part of campus with a bunch of people, now everyone has one," Dr. Chow-White says. Yet, while debate may be amplified and feel more vociferous on some campuses, Dr. Chow-White believes that universities are still one of the few places allowing debate to happen.

"Some voices, as you know, are still heard more than others. But universities are places that I would argue are safe havens, places where people who don't have a voice in society can find a voice, not only find it but have it listened to and recognized," he says.

"Universities still have a very special place in society. They are not driven by economic markets, as everybody else is," he says. Even with social media, a university is "a haven in and of itself."

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