Safe Spaces and Grey Areas Online

By Hiya Chowdhury , UG23

TW : Sexual Harassment 

The recent spate of sexual harassment allegations on the Undergraduate Facebook Group has forced much of the student body to reflect on what a safe university space actually entails. Some have been newly faced with the extent of sexual violence at Ashoka; others have had to slash open old wounds and once again confront known realities. But with this growing awareness come new, earlier unattended questions. What does safety mean in informal spaces like the UG Facebook Group in light of the widespread sexual harassment at Ashoka, and how does the moderating team factor into such conversations on safety? 

The Facebook MOD team has faced the ire of several indignant students in the past few weeks. The numerous sexual harassment allegations on the UG Group seem to elicit from the student body two opposed responses. There are those who voice their concerns about the growing expanse of sexual violence at Ashoka and demand accountability. Others, however, have expressed their concerns about the declining space for ‘grey areas’ and lamented the hostility towards those who had made even the “slightest whiff of a mistake”—a phrase that was perhaps assigned equally, and erroneously, to both harassers and those who publicly decried them. Those with the latter concerns particularly questioned the functioning of the MOD team and their status as an impartial body. For instance, many brought up incidents where the MOD team removed triggering comments posted under the survivors’ accounts upon the survivor’s request, a move some regarded as censorship. 

While the efficacy of student control over an informal space is worth scrutinizing, what goes unsaid in such criticisms is that the MOD team has been working tirelessly to make the Facebook Group a safe, empowering space for survivors. From helping survivors to maintain their anonymity to protecting them from being threatened and intimidated, their work has been in the best interest of survivors. The moderators have chosen to take on this massive task despite the fact that their work comes without safety, anonymity or remuneration. When The Edict reached out to them with questions about their experiences in this position, they said: “The toll that comes along with constantly having to set aside your own emotions and trauma so that you can function efficiently and effectively as a MOD, and listen to other people talk to you about their own is palpable. We joined expecting to be moderators of a Facebook group and somehow ended up having to go far beyond what we were expected to do, or that anyone should have to.” The critics of their work have mostly ignored these merits and challenges.

Given the clarity of the MOD team’s intentions, it is worth exploring why so many students feel threatened by their efforts. It is possible that since the moderators are not elected directly by the student body, some students may feel a certain suspicion regarding their actions. However, this complaint feels redundant now that the MOD team has tried to bridge this perceived lack of transparency. In the AMA session, for instance, the moderators reiterated the rationale behind deleting comments, asserting that only comments which threatened, doxxed or triggered survivors were deleted upon the survivor’s request. They also clarified that members were free to make new posts and re-comment after removing the questionable material and that all of their own personal comments on survivors’ posts were labelled as such. Further, when we asked them about the removal of people from the group, the moderators clarified that “In the case of the person we removed…it was a situation that demanded urgent action. We agree that removal is indeed an exceptional circumstance, and no one apart from 1 person has been removed in the entire time of 3 months this MeToo conversation has been going on in the group…” They further explained that a formal log is maintained for these decisions. “Every action we take is recorded and up for review by the other moderators, who have the power to ‘reverse’ them also, as we do if we have at any point taken the wrong call. This log is automatically maintained by Facebook, and in addition to this, comments or posts are made explaining what actions we have taken and why we have taken them.”

This level of accountability isn’t necessarily a part of the moderators’ job profile, but it has been offered nonetheless. “It is perhaps unfair to ask us if we “owe” transparency or answers because we have never withheld information unless it was to protect someone’s safety”, one of the moderators explained.

Despite these clarifications, many continue to take issue with the MOD team.“Receiving angry mails, abusive comments, threats of punitive action has just been hurtful.”, the MOD Team told us.  The enduring vitriol directed towards the moderators exposes a bigger problem within our collective consciousness. Why is it that the MOD team’s efforts to protect and empower survivors come across as a threat to the best interests of the student body? Shouldn’t these steps make us feel more, rather than less, safe?

This emerging discomfort reflects the inculcation of attitudes that are a consequence of the sexual harassment culture at Ashoka. Conversations around cancel culture and cyber-bullying have dominated the Ashoka inbox in recent times, but rarely in conjunction with those around accountability, protection of survivors and community support for those affected by sexual violence—something that can be immensely distressing for the survivors among us. Instead, there seems to be constant consternation around whether or not the actions of the moderators align with the best interests of the student body, implying that the protection of survivors is not one of the student body’s primary interests. In fact, tone-policing and attacking survivors in the interest of nuance and ‘grey areas’ seems to be emerging as a more favourable interest to uphold for many.

The actions of the MOD team are not beyond dispute, like all else at Ashoka. However, there seems to be more to the student body’s current indignation with the MOD team than just institutional disgruntlement. When the efforts to empower survivors are ridiculed in the name of ‘safety for all,’ the core question of safety on the UG Group becomes marred. If the only way the entire student body can feel safe is by taking away from the safety of survivors, then our idea of safety needs to be reconsidered. A true safe space must see an equivalence between the concerns of the student body and the concerns of survivors, and not treat these two parties as separate and opposed. Unfortunately, this discrepancy does exist and the fall-out from it is being directed towards the MOD team in the absence of any other body to blame. Unless this problematic divide between the concerns of survivors and those of the student body is bridged, the MOD team’s effort to empower survivors will always appear threatening, and we will recede in our efforts to create safe spaces for those impacted by sexual harassment at Ashoka.

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