Candidates for any elected position may anticipate mudslinging, as it is part and parcel of any campaigning process; however, harassment to the point of dropping out is unacceptable, especially at the student level. This harassment does not necessarily take place between campaign teams—it plays out in online forums where anyone, regardless of whether they are members of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) or not, may engage in criticism and personal attacks.
SSMU elections have reached a breaking point. It is no longer sustainable for candidates to take part in or be subject to such an intensely negative online culture. While increasing student interest in the short term, online turmoil only serves to further alienate the student body in the long run. Currently, Elections SSMU, which has some control over the candidates insofar as the bylaws mandate, is not equipped to handle the challenges of such a culture; thus, the incentives for both candidates and the electorate who participates in these tactics must be adjusted in order to discourage a negative electoral culture.
The judicial board and Elections SSMU are institutions that ought to protect or sanction candidates when necessary. But the proliferation of a negative online community full of false accounts, personal attacks, and baseless accusations exposes the weaknesses of these channels. Anyone, whether or not they are members of SSMU, may post allegations, complaints, and criticisms related to the candidates. This takes the decision to punish a candidate beyond official channels—when the vote can be influenced by untrue claims, the fairness of an election is reduced.
To ensure that accusations are formally investigated, candidates must direct any allegation to Elections SSMU. Anonymity protects those who incite negative commentary from repercussions; candidates become open targets for online harassment. SSMU may not feel the immediate consequences of online polemics, but the impact will quickly manifest itself. The pool of candidates has already been small in recent elections—three out of six executive positions were uncontested in the Winter 2015 election, and there were initially no candidates at all for the VP External position. For an electorate that vocally laments the lack of representation in SSMU, the engagement in negative commentary perpetuates that cycle itself.
Part of the issue is the platform on which campaigns take place. Although Facebook is an inherently personal platform, the shift cannot be blamed on the internet by itself—personal attacks can occur through any medium. Criticism is necessary to encourage a healthy debate and analysis of the viability of candidates, but the balance between reasonable and unreasonable scrutiny has tipped towards the latter. Regardless of whether an allegation is true or not, or what Elections SSMU or the judicial board decides, it is allowed to fester online to limited consequence—only candidates themselves can be held accountable to byalws. Freedom of expression thus comes into conflict with the fairness of an election.
Although the problem resides in the attitudes of a select few who perpetuate online negativity, Elections SSMU may provide the impetus for change. Currently, it acts when issues are brought forward, and even then its enforcement of these guidelines is inconsistent. Instead, it should set strict, unambiguous rules to which all candidates must adhere during any campaign. Such rules may entail a strict penalty to those who engage negative commentators, making the de-escalation of conflict a priority. It may also establish a positive incentive system whereby campaigns that have a positive online setting—defined by active discussion and criticism without crossing the line to harassment—are rewarded. This will not eliminate the problem, but it may help to mitigate the consequences.
Personality is inevitably a factor at play in SSMU elections, as candidates are individuals rather than partisan. But some members of the McGill community have lost a sense for what is legitimate criticism and inquiry and inexcusable personal attacks—the latter can cause lasting negative impacts on the individuals targeted. While the stakes of student government are certainly high—given that the position is paid and entails extensive responsibilities—a line must be entrenched to protect future candidates and the sustainability of student elections themselves. Candidates must be able to present themselves as peers; they cannot be dehumanized.