Student elections spark online abuse

Deputy Editor Julia McGee-Russell reports on negative online responses to the 2021 Student Elections

Julia McGee-Russell
15th March 2021

After the first-ever fully online election campaign, seven new sabbatical officers have been elected to take office in July. The winners were announced at a semi-in-person ceremony in Luthers’ Bar.

The elected officials for 2021/22 are: Abbie Hutchinson as President, Livia
Scott as Education Officer, Briana Gordhan as Welfare & Equality Officer,
Haris Nadeem Bashir as Activities Officer, Fergus Mainland as Athletic Union Officer, Eleanor McCarthy as Postgraduate Officer and George Boatfield as Editor of The Courier.


The weeks of online campaigning leading up to voting week saw record
numbers of candidates dropping out of the elections, and an unprecedented
level of online abuse. Seven candidate debates were hosted and live-streamed online by Student Media; those with the highest viewership, the Presidential Debate and Results Night coverage, were subject to a torrent of anonymous hate comments.


The comments included racist and Sinophobic statements such as reportedly referring to Chinese people at the university as something that needs to be ‘taken care of.’ There were also comments using the term ‘neurodivergent’ as an insult against other commenters, and mocking the candidate’s appearances and accents. Several of the comments were overtly or covertly racist, sexist, fatphobic, and ableist in nature.


Following the Presidential Debate, Presidential candidate Thomas Bracewell said he received a ‘verbal warning’, ‘despite no one being able to prove
it was [his] supporters’ who made the comments.


‘Those views do not represent me, they have no place in society, university
and the SU.’ Bracewell told The Courier. ‘Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences.’

Fellow Presidential candidate, Christopher Winter, said ‘I am the only person that speaks for me and those people in the comments certainly were not speaking on my behalf.’

‘No one who runs for a position in the Union should be made to feel bad
about themselves… Many of the people running for president are people who I would consider my friends and I am deeply upset that our relationships may have been put under strain because of those comments.’ Winter concluded.


An official complaint was made, however, ‘the request to hold those responsible to account could not be substantiated as individuals who made the inappropriate comments had disguised their identities,’ a NUSU spokesperson said.

‘NUSU has a zero-tolerance policy regarding any form of harassment, discrimination and hate crime and categorically denounces the behaviour seen during the election’ the spokesperson added.


Following the complaint, NUSU issued a statement that called the comments ‘an abhorrent display from a community that should be friendly and
welcoming’

‘I was shocked and appalled to see some of the comments being made on results night.’ incoming Postgraduate Officer Eleanor McCarthy told The
Courier. ‘This kind of behaviour has absolutely no place in NUSU.’


Since nominations closed, eight candidates dropped out of the Sabbatical Officer race.

Incoming NUSU President Abbie Hutchinson noted the wider problem with mental health for candidates: ‘Running in an election is very demanding mentally and physically… I think it is really important we recognise
many individuals dropped out of this year’s election, with some individuals showing such strength to discuss that it was due in part to its impact on mental health.’


Joe Molander was a candidate for Editor of The Courier before standing
down the day after the debate: ‘I found campaigning incredibly stressful: I would wake up and go to sleep feeling anxious… Like a lot of people, the year has left me exhausted and sad. I realised I couldn’t press on with something that might make that worse.’


There was a four-vote margin between incoming Activities Officer, Haris Nadeem Bashir, and his opponent. After his win, he received anonymous negative comments on the student confession Facebook group, Newfess, describing his success as ‘something seriously wrong with the system’ and that users would ‘refuse all help from this man’.


Haris told The Courier: ‘Obviously it was hurtful to see that I wasn’t welcomed like I was supposed to be, or being judged on how I would perform even before I started. But this unexpected turn of events also motivated me more to take this role with full responsibility and confidence.’


A Newcastle University spokesperson said: ‘We fully support the action that
has been taken by NUSU in response to online comments posted during recent elections. We do not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind in our community and work hard with NUSU and our Sabbatical Officers to ensure an inclusive and safe campus for all.


‘Any student who is worried or wishes to report concerns should email: casework@newcastle.ac.uk or report anonymously using the online Report and Support service. A confidential counselling support service is also available from the Newcastle University Student Health and Wellbeing Counselling Team for any student who needs it.’


Despite the behaviour of anonymous students, the voter turnout was 3047
students, down only 25 from last year.

For support with regard to harassment, discrimination, and hate crime,
visit the NUSU Report and Support service at www.nusu.co.uk/support/
report.

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AUTHOR: Julia McGee-Russell
Deputy Editor of The Courier, previously Arts Sub-Editor and Head of News at Newcastle Student Radio. Lover of all things arts, culture, and self-care.

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