September 28, 2020

BY BETH CROUSE

In a society shaped by social media, the excuse “but I didn’t mean it” just doesn’t excuse online behaviour.

Ryan Millet, one of the 13 students involved in the Dalhousie University dentistry scandal, has gone public to protest his suspension. He wants people to believe that his adding a Facebook “like” to a suggestive photo of a woman sitting on the steps of a public building with a sign tucked under her folded legs that read “public entrance” doesn’t reflect his personal beliefs in real-life.

In a related CBC story, tech expects said that a “like” shouldn’t always be taken literally.

Aimee Morrison, an associate chair in the English department at the University of Waterloo, thinks that the Dalhousie University scandal is interesting for many reasons, including the fact that it exposes how users often don’t appreciate that nothing is completely private online.

“People haven’t quite modulated their behaviour in what is actually a pretty open space,” said Morrison, who studies digital issues.

Millet, a father of three, didn’t interact much with his fellow classmates and used the Facebook group to stay in touch, according to his lawyers.

Bruce MacIntosh, one of Millet’s lawyer, said the Facebook group started out being and continued to be a place where the students could exchange their thoughts about dental things and that only a small percentage of the thousands of posts to the group over the years were offensive in nature.

Leaving a like on a post doesn’t always mean that the user literally likes the content, Morrison said, especially when users feel social pressure to acknowledge friends’ posts.

Gina Miller, a Waterloo resident, spends a lot of time on social media websites and thinks that there aren’t any pressures to like things on Facebook.

“I think it’s a cheap cop-out to claim that people don’t know what they’re doing on social media and that their online actions don’t echo their own personal feelings” Miller said.

“Just because someone posts something on Facebook doesn’t magically create a gun to my head that is forcing me to like it. If I don’t want to like it or I don’t agree with it, I don’t like it on Facebook. It’s that simple.”

Khalid Jama, a Kitchener resident, also thinks people know what they’re doing when it comes to social media pressures.

“I have a lot of friends who post controversial things on Facebook but never once have I felt like I had to like it or they wouldn’t be my friends. I like things on Facebook that I like in real-life. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean I think it’s cool to like sexist or racist things,” Jama said.

Matthew Johnson, director of education for the non-profit organization MediaSmarts, which researches how kids and teens are growing up in today’s digital age, thinks that young people especially often place a very high value on having their photos and comments liked and know their friends also crave that validation.

“Likes are strongly taken as a measure of popularity. There’s often a lot of stress, for instance, when a photo is posted, over how many likes it will receive,” Johnson said.

According to Morrison, it’s harder for young people in particular to understand how damaging their online actions can be, whether it’s a post, like or otherwise.

Millet, along with his 12 classmates involved in the Facebook page featuring sexist, homophobic and sexually violent comments, have been suspended from clinical activities, a significant requirement of the dentistry program, as well as a restorative justice process where all parties involved will discuss at length the harm caused through this Facebook page.

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