The launch of Zuleyka Shahin’s campaign for the Oxford Union Presidency sparked online controversy this week, after administrators on her Facebook campaign page appeared to delete critical comments, leading to accusations against Shahin of “censorship” and attempts to “stifle free debate”.
In addition, several students expressed outrage at transphobic comments addressed toward Shahin on the page, which were described as “disgusting” and “shameful”.
Shahin, a former Big Brother contestant, currently serves as the Union’s Treasurer, and has risen quickly through the institution’s ranks. She hopes to be elected President tomorrow on a platform of “real, lasting, structural” change, and is standing against Librarian Stuart Webber.
One student wrote on the page: “Why have you got three people running who are going abroad next year?” This comment was reportedly deleted by page admins within a number of minutes, and the student was blocked from commenting.
Responding to the campaign name ‘Now or Never’, Pembroke student Joe Fowles wrote on the page: “It’s not really now or never, the Union famously has elections all the time.” This comment was also deleted by page admins, Fowles claims.
He told The Oxford Student: “I think it’s pretty poor form for a team that promotes themselves as the champions of transparency and openness to go about censoring legitimate questions in this way. For me this kind of behaviour really calls into question the motives of those running the slate.”
This is the first round of Union elections in which candidates are allowed to openly campaign and form slates, with little or no restrictions. The rule change has seen both presidential candidates launching large social media campaigns; unprecedented in recent Union history.
Somerville student Elliot Howard-Spink also wrote on the campaign wall, asking why Shahin’s slate has three students who are abroad next year. This post was deleted, he claims.
Howard-Smith told The OxStu: “Whilst managing their page in this way is of course their prerogative, it is disappointing to see serious and detailed questions about campaign promises removed in this way.”
Pembroke student Natasha Fairweather also criticised the campaign’s handling of comments: “The Union is supposed to be a debating society, but instead of rationally responding to people’s criticisms and defending themselves, they have childishly censored us. The ‘Now or Never’ team claim to be the defenders of change, but instead they have resorted to playing those political games conducive to the very image that both teams strive to alter.”
Students also expressed outrage toward transphobic comments made on the page. One commenter, writing under what is believed to be a fake name, wrote: “Do we really want a certain brand of feminism being shoved down our throats … how can a man deliver on diversity just because he is dressed as a woman. Take it to WomCam – not here.”
This comment was received negatively on the page, with the statement described as “fucking disgusting”.
Responding to complaints, Shahin told The OxStu: “Our initial policy was to have no comments so as to avoid debates which could lead to an election tribunal, as candidates are still under strict rules about what they can and can’t say. We then realised this was a problem and thought it best to engage to get across what we wanted to say despite still under the limitations posed by the rules; whether or not a fact is true, we are not allowed to say it unless it went through the scrutiny process on Sunday. Unfortunately, we have had to remove several trolling and/or transphobic comments on our Facebook page, as is common with moderation on many other pages. “As you can see from comments on the page, where questions are asked in good faith, we are more than happy to respond in an official capacity.”
After complaining about his comment being deleted, Oriel student Michael Whitehorn was told by page admins to “kindly send a private message” with a “specific enquiry”.
Members will vote tomorrow for a number of contested positions, in one of the most widely discussed Oxford Union elections in recent years.
Photo: Now or Never Oxford Union Campaign