Social Media in a Controversial Student Election: New Frontiers for Political Strife

by Anson Au, University of Toronto

from Critical Mass, Volume 44, Issue 1

During the 2018-2019 academic year, Carol (name changed to protect her identity) ran for student president at one of the largest universities in Canada. Her platform was dressed up in the usual rhetoric for campaigns in student elections: fighting for more resources for students, ensuring students’ voices were heard and represented, and so on. But Carol was also vocal in advocating for the freedom of an ethnic group in China, making the controversial claim that the territory should be politically autonomous and separated from China and that the cultural history of this ethnic group was so distinct that they deserved independence.

Although this focus was independent of her official platform for the student presidency, Chinese students were quick to infuriate, especially after Carol won. A petition began online demanding Carol’s resignation or termination from her position, garnering over 11,000 signatures. The petition called for “awareness and protection of Chinese students’ own rights,” specifically disagreeing with Carol’s participation in political campaigns that went against Chinese history and challenged China’s sovereignty. The petition circulated widely on WeChat (the most popular social media app in China [Statista 2019]), where Chinese students also coordinated timed “attacks” on her social media profiles, leaving waves of comments on her Instagram pictures that disparaged her ideas, positions, and person.

The entire event showcases something we’ve recently found out about social media, namely, that it can be a platform to facilitate collective action (Brym et al. 2014). But it also demonstrates something new: that collective organization is used to effect online action. The shift in the form of collective action that social media facilitates, from offline to online, signals important interpretive shifts in the nature of the digital public sphere and the role it plays in social life. For one, it means that the entire lifecycle of a social movement, from conception to organization to outcome, can stay online. More interestingly, it means that people see online profiles as something far more intimate to their selves than before (see also Au and Chew 2018). Profiles are no longer distant representations of themselves, but so proximal that slander on one’s profile is perceived to be equivalent to an attack on one’s self.

These dynamics are particularly important in transforming how the university acts a frontier for political conflict, when social media becomes the site, tool, and outcome of confrontation as tensions between contesting national imageries spill over into campus life.


Au, Anson, and Matthew Chew. 2018. “How Do You Feel? Managing Emotional Reaction, Conveyance, and Detachment on Facebook and Instagram.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 37(3): 127-137. DOI: 10.1177/0270467618794375

Brym, Robert, Melissa Godbout, Andreas Hoffbauer, Gabe Menard, and Tony Huiquan Zhang. 2014. “Social Media in the 2011 Egyptian Uprising.” The British Journal of Sociology 65(2): 266-292. DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12080

Statista. 2019. “Most Popular Social Networks Worldwide as of January 2019, Ranked by Number of Active Users (in Millions).” Statista. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: