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University administration admits to using social media to target student activists

ByOlivia R. Nolan

May 1, 2016

University of Edinburgh officials have admitted to using social media as a means of identifying and targeting student protesters and threatening them with disciplinary action, emails reveal.

Six students who took part in the occupation of Charles Stewart House (CSH) on behalf of the People and Planet divestment campaign were notified that an investigation into their alleged student misconduct was being carried out by University officials.

The charges have since been dropped due to apparent lack of evidence, however it can now be revealed that the investigation was filed due to the University administration’s use of social media to identify the students who were targeted.

In an email sent to the six activists, seen by The Student, Deputy Secretary of Student Experience, Gavin Douglas, stated that he was “shown evidence from social media” to corroborate the students’ involvement in the occupation of CSH, which allegedly violated certain aspects of the student code of conduct. Douglas was unavailable for comment at time of press.

Minutes from a meeting of University finance managers on March 10th were also leaked earlier this week and published by a columnist for The National, Michael Grey, on a citizen journalist website, Commonspace. The minutes reveal senior administrative figures discussing the use of social media as a means of quashing student protests.

The minutes show the targeting of People and Planet as an organisation, specifically discussing “concerns about potential further disruptions by the end of March/1st April.” People and Planet had previously issued an open letter to Principal Sir Timothy O’Shea saying that they were planning further protests if their divestment asks were not met by March 31st.

While financial officers present at the meeting declined to comment at time of press, a University spokesperson issued a statement confirming the legitimacy of the meeting in question, stating: “The University, like any major organisation, has a duty to be aware of activity concerning itself on social media and other public platforms as part of its general communications activity.”

Urte Macikene, Vice President Services for Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA), denounced the administration’s use of social media in this fashion, telling The Student: “Protest is an effective and legitimate way for students to express dissent and make their opinions heard in the university community.

“No student should have to fear for their wellbeing or status at university when protesting peacefully and lawfully.

“I’m thrilled the investigation has been dropped, but the fact this investigation was pursued based on evidence of a peaceful protest on social media is utterly inappropriate and an attack on students’ rights, both to protest and to express themselves freely.

While the identities of the students who were previously under investigation have remained hidden, one of the six spoke to The Student on this issue, saying that the use of social media “has led to victimization in an attempt to scare us from continuing in the push for divestment.”

However the student expressed a positive view, pondering how this situation displays the true success of their campaign efforts. “The monitoring of our social media pages shows the extreme lengths the University has gone to in order to prevent students from organizing protests against their institution. If anything, this shows how vulnerable the university is, and how successful our campaign has been,” they told The Student.

Image credit: Jacob Forsyth-Davies

By Olivia R. Nolan

Olivia is the current News Editor for The Student newspaper. She is a second year History and Literature student hailing from New York City.

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