Shutting down trolls is bad politics

Telling opponents of liberal values to ‘jog on’ may be tempting, but it risks confirming opponents’ claims that universities are aloof bastions of leftism, says Julie Odams

July 26, 2018
trolling online abuse twitter bullying

“Boom! Go, University of Reading!”

I am sure that I was not alone in shouting something along these lines at my phone on 2 July, in response to Reading’s now famous tweet about its refugee scholarships.

“We've had feedback over the last week that some people are unhappy with our plan to offer up to 14 scholarships to refugees living in the local area,” it read. “To these people, we would like to say: Tough. Jog on.”

There’s not a public-sector (or possibly even private-sector) comms person alive who isn’t sick to the back teeth of the hate, abuse and trolls that appear online every day. So it was good to see someone take a strong stand for liberal values. Most of us don’t do that enough.

Huge numbers of people agreed. To date, the tweet has generated nearly 75,000 likes, almost 25,000 retweets and numerous supportive comments. That’s the kind of engagement that communications teams dream of, and in an unscientific poll of my network, the vast majority thought that the tweet was brilliant. It has generated huge amounts of publicity for Reading, prompting donations to its scholarship fund and, possibly, persuading some prospective students to apply, seeing Reading as a place that robustly reflects their own views.

Moreover, it is undeniable that, as a sector, we have had little previous success – over many years of trying – in making the case for refugee support, widening participation, transgender rights and other progressive policies. It often feels like we’re patiently, politely discussing the same points again and again, without getting anywhere. So maybe the time is right for a change in approach.

But, by the next day, I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. More specifically, I was troubled by commentary suggesting that the post’s tone and use of language will only polarise viewpoints further, rather than helping to convince people of why refugee scholarships should be supported. The Daily Mail, for instance, quoted the parent of a Reading student calling the language “crass” and saying that it was not a “suitable tweet from a professional institution”.

But my concern is about more than this. At its core is the fact that concluding the tweet with “Tough. Jog on” shuts down the option for any further discussion. Many Twitter users may have had reasonable questions about this and other widening participation schemes, and while some posed those questions anyway (to which Reading was very active in responding), many will have felt that any follow-up from them could result in their being personally held up as pariahs – if not by the university itself then by other Twitter users.

Discussion is important. It is the very free speech that we as institutions seek to uphold – and the very thing that some in positions of power believe that we are trying to quash. Taking a dismissive tone when our values are questioned risks confirming the suspicion that universities are left-wing bastions that consider themselves too virtuous or too important to be challenged.

Many scholarship funds, in many higher education institutions, are supported by a range of donations, student fees and widening participation funding. Those contributing to these income streams have the right to question us. So does wider society, given that many universities are civic and anchor institutions in their regions.

I know from speaking to Reading’s communications team that they took a considered position, supported by their institution. Their tweet was not a knee-jerk reaction to some comments online. But quite apart from the political risks of presenting ourselves as proud, aloof members of the popular press’ hated “liberal elite”, I can’t help feeling that social media is uncivil enough as it is, without universities, of all institutions, getting in on the act.

Debate can be frustrating, and we may all want to tell people to jog on at times. But, as universities, we must uphold our values of tolerance and rational debate in all our actions. If we don’t, we risk being accused of standing for something else entirely.

Julie Odams is head of communications at Staffordshire University.

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Print headline: Trolls: debate or dismiss?

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