What it’s like being on the receiving end of an online backlash as a student

When you silence a group of people, you end up with a limited range of stories and topics explored

A few weeks ago I published an article entitled ‘What it’s like to go to Ampleforth, a school taught by monks.’ Whilst I myself didn’t go to the school, I was lucky enough to have a friend who did.  He agreed to be interviewed about his time there and expose some of the quirks of life at the school.

However, some ex-pupils of the school, and their friends happened to disagree with some of what my friend told me, and chose to make that clear to him on Facebook messages to him, posts, comments, etc.  While that’s something they’re perfectly entitled to do, and people with different viewpoints and opinions are essential to any sort of healthy discussion, the rise of social media and the abilities it has afforded people mean that this response was overwhelming.

Angry messages were sent to him, his girlfriend, and people even contacted his family. But, I doubt anybody once thought to consider what the ramifications of their words would be.  My friend is no longer willing to participate in articles, and many of my others have since made it clear that seeing what happened to him, they wouldn’t either.

When I’ve talked to people about it, there seems to be an assumption that if you’re willing to put something out there, particularly on a discussion based platform, then you must be fine with, if not expecting abuse. This I feel, is wrong. 

The problem that arises in a situation such as this is that the only voices who then remain on these platforms are the most resilient, confident ones, primed to deal with the torrents of abuse their viewpoints will receive, and when you silence a group of people, you end up with a limited range of stories and topics explored.

Often the voices most vulnerable to criticism on contemporary issues are those same ones aptly suited to discussing them, and thus, when we silence them we significantly diminish the thought pool, sidelining the experiences of people not resilient enough to cope with the very direct, personal criticisms they receive at the hands of online trolls.

You don’t need to glance far to find instances of this. Saffron Kershaw-Mee wrote an article for The Tab Newcastle on being non-binary, aiming to dispel some of what they deemed misconceptions about it.  While the article attacked nobody and spread no hateful message, here were some of the comments they received:

In another article more specific to Edinburgh, another Tab Author, Karla Pichardo, set out to find the most tragic drinking establishments for students in Edinburgh.  The title genuinely specifies that these are the worst for students, not anyone else.  Despite this, the abuse came thick and fast.

What difference you’ll notice about these two instances compared to my own is that this abuse is directed at writers, who have chosen to write and put themselves online, whereas my friend simply volunteered to corroborate some of his experiences for an article that I was writing.

While these writers don’t deserve any of the aforementioned abuse, they may at least expect it and so are far better equipped to deal with it than people who merely contribute to articles.

By all means, criticism is useful for both writers and participants in articles.  It doesn’t even need to be hugely constructive as long as it prompts discussion, but mindless abuse and trolling is pointless.

I find the abuse I’ve received for articles trivial, sometimes even quite funny, but when this sort of behaviour is directly hindering me in contributing towards a platform that I care about, I feel the need to speak out.

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