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(Elli Slavitch / McGill Tribune)

Commentary: The polarizing impact of Facebook events

a/Opinion by

The Winter General Assembly (GA) produced a large turnout and generated passionate debate, prior to and after the vote, mostly due to the proposed “Motion Regarding Divestment from Companies Profiting from the Illegal Occupation of the Palestinian Territories.” While political discussions on campus may have taken up a lot of space in recent weeks, the voices of many students are left unheard.

With McGill’s student population of roughly 27,000 undergraduates, it’s difficult but extremely important to have a representative vote. There should be less of a focus on who votes for what at assemblies, and more of a focus on actually getting students to vote. A big part of the political apathy and ambivalence seen on campus is due to social media, specifically polarizing Facebook events titled “Vote Yes for XYZ” or “Vote No” that exclude students who have not yet formed an opinion on an issue.

Since these Facebook events are often emotionally charged, this pushes a significant number of students away from participating in the discussion and the vote. When someone isn’t informed about an issue on campus, they won’t take the time to vote. When a student is unsure of how to vote, such events discourage an open dialogue and make it difficult for students to find unbiased information about the issue at hand. Students may feel uncomfortable asking for information about political debates from their peers who are so emotionally invested in the issues. Students should feel like they fit in on campus and these events leave many undecided voters in an awkward in-between space, with very little guidance on how to form an opinion on the issue.

If SSMU wants a vote that is representative of the opinions of the student body, it should find a better way to provide students with detailed information on the issues, thereby allowing them to make an informed decision and exercise their democratic right.

It may be argued that it is easier than ever to find information and it is the student’s responsibility to be proactive in doing this. The internet can without a doubt be used as a vital tool in self-education and forming an opinion, but it can also be used to promote biased information depending on the source. In addition, students may feel unmotivated, apprehensive to involve themselves in a polarized issue, or that their voice may not matter when there are plenty of other students deeply involved in the issue, advocating for either side. In order to convince students who are undecided to vote, this motivation needs to be fuelled by education. Politically motivated Facebook events allow for many students to be on either end of the spectrum—either extremely invested in the issue, or entirely apathetic. If the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) wants a vote that is representative of the opinions of the student body, it should find a better way to provide students with detailed information on the issues, thereby allowing them to make an informed decision and exercise their democratic right.

While it can be important to share one’s views, not all students are comfortable publicizing their political stance on Facebook. Students should feel comfortable sharing their opinions but sometimes, especially in the last GA, these views can cause individuals to feel marginalized or judged on campus.

While SSMU did have a general Facebook event for this GA, it should focus on mobilizing students who wouldn’t usually attend or vote. Since some students may not have much background information on certain issues, it could be beneficial for SSMU to post shorter summaries of the motions online for students to read and post links to scholarly articles or events for undecided students, instead of relying on the influence of Facebook rants by their peers. The solution should be a proper education on the political debates on campus, and once students are educated and motivated, then this would hopefully result in a more representative vote.

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