Issue 7, Volume 18
The LSS was contacted for comment by De Minimis. Their response is included at the end of the article.
Last Monday, 7th September, in a unanimous vote at the monthly committee meeting, the MULSS committee adopted a new and expanded version of the MULSS Social Media Policy - the regulations that govern acceptable use and engagement on the various LSS social media accounts including its various Facebook pages and groups. Historically, the social media policy has been a contentious subject. Following the adoption of its first iteration in 2015, De Minimis’ then Managing Editor (later EiC) Duncan Wallace wrote:
“I recognise that this is a difficult area [sic] but I think it is appropriate to take a conservative approach to this issue. I would guard against introducing new and untried social media policies the effects of which are unclear. The burden of proof should be on those who argue that it is necessary to introduce censorship.”
It is of course easy to imagine oneself as standing on some imaginary arc of history by selecting a well-placed quote or two from the archives, but I do think that Duncan’s words are still true today. I also think that a slightly more direct and less nuanced version of the concern is also essentially correct:
This new policy vastly and unnecessarily expands the scope of prohibited conduct on LSS social media accounts and undermines the expectation of procedural or evaluative fairness on behalf of the administrators.
Before we get any further however, some rather tedious housekeeping has unfortunately become necessary. I strongly dislike the recent impression that De Minimis is an anti-LSS publication. Generally, I rather like the LSS. I make frequent use of their services and enjoy the events they (used to) host. I had a minor but enjoyable co-opt role myself last year; and I consider a number of committee members to be personal friends. In fact, I feel a bit uneasy when I see articles about fellow students in general. Partly because we really have not done a good job of growing a more constructive ecosystem on this site these past few years. Mostly because I’m an adult, and at my age it just feels embarrassing to steer into the juvenile high-school spectacle of the MLS culture wars. Sure, I secretly enjoy the drama of a good comments-section bonfire every now and then, but if it were up to me I’d much rather spend my time writing silly articles about ghost law or some other nonsense that nobody will read.
I’m not going to pretend to be as impartial today. Whatever the intentions behind it, I believe that once brought into effect the new policy will be harmful to the law school and student life.
Under the previous policy, prohibitions were against ‘defamatory, derogatory, harassing, discriminatory or otherwise inappropriate’ conduct. Although left undefined, to some extent each of these terms was constrained, at least implicitly. Added under the new policy is conduct considered ‘offensive, insulting, humiliating, or intimidating.’ The vagueness of these terms is bespoke tailored for scope creep and can be unambiguously extended to a range of critical commentary and discourse. Now, recently we have been sold an unfortunate meme that beneath objections to these kinds of prohibitions lies a secret desire to enact prejudice on vulnerable groups. I think this is usually untrue. It is unclear to me what added protections to the safety of our digital spaces prohibitions against ‘offensive’ conduct offer, which are not already in place under more sensible categories of discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and various other bigotries. Or, what utility ‘insulting’ and ‘humiliating’ provide which is not already captured by operative university codes of conduct on social media use and bullying. It is however, apparent to me that these terms are worryingly undefinable, prone to unpredictable and elastic application, operating outside of agreed categories and without target specificity. They are inevitably destined for misapplication and the weaponization of disputes between overly-litigious students. A prohibition against ‘speculative content’ has been repeated, as has a prohibition on content considered ‘otherwise inappropriate.’ Additionally, the previous prohibition against ‘excessive use’ has also been expanded to include ‘spamming’ – any material that visually dominates the online space or invades a user’s notifications.
Most concerning has been the alteration to the language of the policy’s administration and enforcement. Under the wording, the finding of a breach is purely at the discretion of directors. Administrators may unilaterally remove any content without notice. The directors may make any binding directions to users about any form of future conduct, and these directions are final. An allowance for the committee to adopt definitions or terms from time to time seems worryingly open – though in fairness this has been explained to me to be intended merely as a mechanism to integrate certain formal resolutions usually made at the organisational level. Removed is an aspirational, though potentially instructive line about only intervening where deemed absolutely necessary. No provisions are included for the involvement of impugned users in any process or investigation, or any form of dispute resolution.
Now, as a matter of practical reality, one might have expected that the policy’s administrators would ultimately be responsible for making decisions under it. Less expected is to see this practice reified in the language of naked power. These changes are not merely cosmetic - function does sometimes follow form, and the implicit expectations and cultures of administration between these policies are vastly different. Part of this goes to an underlying philosophical dispute on the use of these spaces. Do we view them purely as an outward looking facet of the organisation, necessarily bounded by strict administrative authority? Or do we view them as more communal resources, created and shaped by our collective interactions? I will admit, some compromise is necessary to recognise the legal responsibility of the association. But it is not too much to ask this to at least be bounded by a sense of moderation and humility.
These harms are not purely speculative for us. A good deal of our concern as editors is motivated by our own experience this year with the way SMPs are applied. In mid-May, De Minimis was contacted by the LSS following a confidential complaint against us. The following investigation went into a number of areas, but the core issue emerging was whether our posts constituted excessive use on the basis of how much visual space they took up on the JD feeds compared to other users (what would be considered spamming under the new policy), and if and what in what form we could post our articles on the JD cohort pages. A fairly trivial issue for most, however life and death for an organisation that receives 65% of our social media acquisition from those pages. Now, I have been conflicted about how, and even if, to talk about this. It not our role as editors to seize the platform to publicly litigate our organisational disputes. It is also hard to be impartial - the duration and correspondence of the dispute has been long and complex; it would be difficult to summarize concisely whilst being fair to both parties. Frankly, what I am about do next – obliquely reference a handful of events out of context – is not much better.
But I think it is important to understand the impact that these policies have on students – and unfortunately, our experiences this year, as the subjects of an investigation and the subsequent application of policy and negotiation, have not been positive. Having our posts deleted; feeling as though restrictions and instructions about the format of our articles were unnecessary or excessive; feeling as though we have been denied the same access to community spaces as our peers. Ironically it has been concern over the comments section on our own site being targeted for administration, that has often led us to delete discussions out of pre-emptive fear. It is important to note that after our latest discussions we are not subject to any continuing restrictions and seem more or less free to post in the manner we have done in the past. However, these intervening months have had a toll on us. Organisationally, yes. But also for myself, my editors, and a number of our writers – people doing our best this year to hold the dorky school paper together with our bare hands – it has been personally frustrating and hurtful.
Of course, 2020 has been nothing if not a year in continual perspective readjustment. The LSS is not making these decisions or administering the online spaces in bad faith. No, I am not as understanding as I would like. Yes, I have occasionally struggled to read disagreements charitably. But even if for no other reason than simple Bayesian priors, it strikes me as unlikely that the volunteer administrators of a student society secretly harbour autocratic proclivities. However, in many respects this is precisely the problem. It is easy to call out bad actors when they are obviously abusing power. It is much harder to fix systems of good people, trying to do good, but being driven by bad incentives and bad rules. In future years, the problem will not the formation of an authoritarian MLS politburo. It will be a Comms Director feeling that they have to delete that Facebook thread that got just a little too heated. It will be an overly cautious Education Director realising that a bunch of those weekly memes in the student tutorials group technically constitute copyright infringement and deciding ‘just to be on the safe side.’ It will be somebody just a little too eager to launch a complaint, and somebody else just a little too willing to decide that that precise wording of that line of text or political opinion actually does constitute speculative or insulting content. It will be the frustration and anger of a student receiving a curt and clinical response to the effect of ‘at our discretion we have determined your conduct was in breach of the policy and this decision is final.’ It will be the resentment of paternalism, the attenuation of our digital culture, and the anaemia of its spirit.
Well, it’s about time to wrap up with a populist sign-off and call to action. The typical response, if history is anything to go by, will be a fair amount of histrionics in the comments section. Somebody will start throwing around terms like ‘oppressive’ and ‘unaccountable’. Somebody will call out another DM attack on our hardworking peers. One or two people will try to say something wholesome, and somebody will post that stupid ‘LSS RISE UP’ copypasta.
But just this once, let’s make a deal. Before you scroll down to join the fray, write an email to the committee. I’m completely serious, everybody loves getting mail, and they are always asking for feedback. If you disagree with the new policy, say as much. If you are planning on voting next week, contact the various candidates and tell them your thoughts. Send another email to whoever gets elected and tell them you want the 2021 committee to reopen the issue.
If you promise to do all of that, you have my blessing. Say whatever the hell you want in the comments section. Really. Be inventive. Go fucking wild.
I mean, we’ll probably still have to delete a third of it, but at least this time you will have earned it.
Michael Franz is a third year JD student, and the Editor-in-Chief of in De Minimis.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of disclosure, De Minimis Managing Editor Max Ferguson is running for election to the 2021 LSS committee. Max has been recused from his role for all articles and discussions regarding the LSS for the duration of elections, and has had no input into the research, editing or discussion of this article. De Minimis wishes best luck to all candidates during the election.
Copies of the current and newly introduced policy have been provided by the LSS for the purposes of this article and are attached below. Please note that the final circulated version of the policy may have minor formatting or editing differences.
Response from MULSS Leadership Team and Communications Directors
We feel the inevitable unease in moderating our peers, but the realities of running a large social media platform means that this responsibility ultimately falls to us. We take our responsibility in administering our social media very seriously because we recognise that the spaces are utilised by a diverse cross-section of the JD community. The proper administration of our social media is necessary to ensure that all members of that community feel safe and welcome in these spaces. This requires a balance and weighing of factors such as student wellbeing and the benefit provided by the creativity of the JD community.
The Policy applies to all of LSS social media, including crucially the Melbourne JD Year-Level Facebook groups. It is in the best interests of students to have the LSS support them if they feel that something on our social media is unacceptable. Our social media will never be a place where offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating interactions are tolerated.
We believe the new Policy is a significant improvement on the previous one, which was vague and had proven exceedingly hard to administer with certainty. However, this is an evolving document that is open to further amendment. We expect that changes may be required as we gain practical experience in its implementation.
We encourage people to read the Policy and write to us with their feedback, as well as if they are ever concerned with content published to our social media. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or utilise the anonymous feedback form at https://mulss.com/about/feedback-form/ if you prefer.
Finally, we would like to thank the many users of our social media that have kept the JD community alive at such a rough time.