Get with the times

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine if the provincial government announced that in the next provincial election, candidates, volunteers, and supporters were barred from using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, to talk about the election. This would rightfully cause outrage. To restrict freedom of speech by restricting social media would be seen by the vast majority of people as completely unacceptable.

Yet, this policy has been implemented in the most recent UMSU election. According to the rules, candidates and campaign volunteers are not allowed to post their policies on Facebook, or discuss the election publicly using social media. They can send private messages to only five friends at a time. That’s it; no wall posts, no Facebook groups. The punishments for “unauthorized campaigning” — which breaking the Facebook restrictions falls under — can range from a fine, to outright disqualification.

Some may say that this really isn’t a big deal, since most students don’t vote in UMSU elections anyway, but let’s not forget that we constantly hear about low voter turnout. How does restricting Facebook and Twitter use help improve those figures? If anything, it will lower voter turnout and keep students from getting involved in the campaign. Our generation communicates through social media to a massive extent, so to ignore Facebook’s and Twitter’s potential to engage students is to miss a huge opportunity. It is tough to take UMSU’s goal of higher voter turnout seriously when they restrict the one tool that would almost assuredly get more students to vote.

Need an example of the potential impact? The Manitoban recently tweeted about the ongoing campaigning, and received tweets back from confused students, the gist of which was “there’s an election going on?”

The concern that has been expressed about using Facebook in the election is that some people might use it to criticize other candidates. That may very well happen. But so what if it does? People could write something bad in a newspaper. Do we ban newspapers? People can say bad things on the radio. Do we ban radio? We are limiting the freedom of speech of potentially thousands of students over the slight risk that some people will use social media to criticize other candidates and ideas. This is unacceptable.

The truth is that if different candidates and sides don’t like each other, some of them will say negative things, regardless of the format in which those ideas can be expressed. Pushing the election off of Facebook will only drive this negativity underground; it won’t stop it. While most students would just see posters and pamphlets, there could be very negative campaigns happening under the surface.

Democracy cannot exist without the right to publicly criticize, so why should UMSU be concerned about candidates using social media to attack each other? Were students allowed to freely use Facebook, they could see for themselves whether candidates were being negative towards each other, and they would have more information to decide on the character and worthiness for office of the contenders. They could also see whether criticisms being made were relevant and worth hearing. The Facebook restrictions rob students of this opportunity.

Beyond all of this, I think there is a more important issue. Why does UMSU even have the right to stop people from using Facebook during the election? What business is it of theirs if you choose to post on Facebook about the election? If you are helping a campaign, and you want to promote that team to your friends, why should anyone have the right to tell you what you can’t write on your Facebook wall or Twitter feed?

This has to end. You deserve the chance to share your views on Facebook and on Twitter and to hear the views of the candidates who wish to represent you. If someone thinks that what a candidate or volunteer says is controversial, they are free to share their disagreement. That is what freedom of speech means. It’s not the freedom to never hear something you disagree with, it’s the right to say what you believe, while understanding that others have the same right. Freedom of speech should be defended and promoted by our student union, not undermined.

UMSU must understand that trying to restrict individuals from sharing their ideas and their views will only serve to reduce the participation of students and undermine the strength of the representation students receive.

The irony here is that as UMSU tries to restrict social media, the rest of the world is going in the opposite direction. Our own Federal Government recently removed the ban on sharing election results via Twitter and Facebook on Election Day. In the United States, Barack Obama utilized social media to an unprecedented extent in 2008, and both he and the Republican candidates are building a massive online presence this time around. It is time for UMSU to get with the times and stop restricting the freedom of students and candidates to share their voices through social media.

Spencer Fernando is the comment editor of the Manitoban.