From Social Media to Student Council: On the Importance of Accountability


Last Thursday, Dominic Doherty, Deputy Director of the Students’ Union, felt moved to send an email to all SU Councillors, asking them to think carefully about what they posted on social media. He wrote: “I am sure that you would agree that in any contest where one party cannot defend themselves, the use of the term ‘bullying’ is not inappropriate”. The email was prompted by a backlash against the election marketing campaign on social media. It was felt that some comments were rather too close to the knuckle, 220-802
and particularly aimed at the marketing team. As they work for the Union, the staff must refrain in engaging in debate on Facebook due to contractual obligations.

Sarah-Louise Baird, current VP Community has spoken of scrolling through her own Facebook feed and noticing unsavoury comments and personal attacks on the sabbatical team. She has noted that she considers this a contributing reason for the lack of CCNA 200-120 candidates in this year elections, asserting that when students see current Sabbatical Officers subjected to personal attacks on social media, they are reluctant to put themselves in that position.

The problem with social media is that it is rather too instant. Too often, there is engagement with a keyboard before engagement with your brain. I’m sure that there have always been cross words about Sabbs, but in the past they have probably been uttered in kitchens and living rooms, and never heard by the Sabbs themselves. Whilst this is still not pleasant, as we are all aware, what we don’t know cannot hurt us. Social media results in pools of word vomit, for all to see, even the undeserving subject. Who you are or what your job is doesn’t matter, it still hurts.

We must draw a line in the sand. There is a very clear difference between personal attack and professional criticism. On Tuesday, after the close of nominations, a casual chat with some Sabbs revealed that they shared some of Baird’s concerns – that would be candidates were put off by witnessing current team members going through a hard time, not just on social media, but also at SU council. Let’s be clear. It’s obviously not alright to make personal attacks towards anyone. Even if they have made a professional mistake. There are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ here, it’s just not alright and here endeth the lesson.

However, when anyone puts themselves forward for election to what is essentially a public office, accountability is essential. Sabbatical Officers are held to account by the SU council. Yes, it may not be pleasant to be asked questions in front of a large number of people, particularly when you don’t have the answer that they want to hear, but it is simply part of the position. If a Sabb is asked questions at council, they’re about work. The nature of submitting questions to council means that there must be at least some thought behind them, and as I said, I am sure that the Clerk of Council would not submit any personally vicious questions, if they were to be received. Dominic Doherty has noted that in days gone by, question time would be the liveliest part of council meetings, with the maximum time taken, every time. Anyone who has attended a council meeting recently will know that a heavy question time is now unusual.

I say this as a former editor of the Gown. From my experience, I know that it is impossible to please everyone all of the time. All you can do is your best. It’s all anyone can do. You must also be prepared to stand over your work and justify your decisions when people question your work. Unfortunately, you must also accept that even if you justify yourself, some people will still not accept that explanation, and will not be thrilled with your work. If a lot of people ask the same questions, or make the same complaints, you must examine why there is a recurring theme. I know that it can be hurtful, and it can be infuriating to have work that has taken up a huge amount of time and energy criticized so easily. (And let’s remember that Gown editors don’t get a £17k salary to comfort us, we enjoy a salary of job satisfaction alone). However, I knew what I was applying for. I knew that I was not entitled to a smooth ride. I went in with my eyes opened.

If the “Breaking Thru” team achieve what seems extremely likely and win all six uncontested seats, and quite possibly the presidential position too, I hope they realize what they have signed up for. They must be prepared to publically answer questions about their work, and not take it as a personal attack, but see it as simply part of the package.


Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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