Following the decision to leave the EU, my Facebook feed was swamped with the distressed cries from my predominantly privately educated Oxford University friends, declaring how disgusted and disappointed they were at the racism and bigotry that had propelled the Leave campaign to victory. 'I am ashamed to call myself British' one wrote, 'this is not the progressive and forward thinking country I believed it to be' another declared.
Growing up in the working class borough of Hillingdon, coincidently one of the five London boroughs which voted leave, I was exposed to a broad spectrum of races, classes and political opinions. Walking home from school, I accustomed myself to the chants of 'paki' from anonymous men in white vans and the bitter mutterings of 'foreigners' and 'need to speak English' on night buses and dingy shop corners. Meanwhile, there were those who praised the easy accessibility of both the local Polish sweet store and the fish and chippy on the High Street, whilst my secondary school based in Slough, actively encouraged the sharing of religions and cultures in a positive constructive manner. In contrast, despite being academically stimulated at Oxford, I have experienced a narrower scope of political opinion, as universities easily become spheres of conformity, whereby young people naturally swing to the left, through similarity of upbringing and sheer herd mentality.
For me, witnessing the post referendum online chaos which ensued amongst university friends, marked the temporary bursting of a liberal bubble which pervades throughout British universities. This bubble fuelled by social media, enables one to become a virtual activist by joining online student communities such as 'Cuntry Living' and 'Worrying Signs', as well as liking and sharing articles from outlets such as the Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Independent, Vice and Writers of Colour, to name a few. Being so encased within progressive media content in predominately liberal universities provides a false virtual reality, in which individuals regard their environments and associates as reflective of the broader British society and believe that by being vocal online they are genuinely making a practical difference. 'Little Englanders' are often ridiculed for what many perceive to be ignorant nationalism, yet are 'Little Oxonians' and 'Little Londoners', shrouded by educational titles, wealth and societal privilege, not guilty of holding the same narrow perspective?
In a country increasingly characterised by Labour and Conservative incompetence, a lifeless economy and growing racial intolerance, the ease of social media, proves to be a vital outlet for the frustration of young students, who see a world in which anti-intellectualism has taken precedent. Certainly, a pithy tweet calling out bigotry can become a therapeutic source of calm, as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram allow for like minded people to connect and find clarity within the chaos. Although online communities, hashtags and movements, often founded on principals of equality, can instigate real change and provide safe environments for individuals to tackle prejudice, such platforms are in danger of becoming insular and self serving. Sharing incidents of sexism within a Facebook group, for example, will do little to alter the opinions of those with sexist attitudes. In fact, such individuals are not even present within the group, which is more often than not, filled with self proclaimed feminists who already hold a fixed mindset on gender issues. Likewise, discussing classism in a stream of angry tweets, as a beneficiary of a middle class Oxford education, does little to aid a minimum wage worker unable to support themselves. Whilst all public activist forums have moderators designed to ensure that such groups remain as inclusive and productive as possible, some online havens can quickly descend into vicious nit-picking technical traps as the wording and timing of posts can spark brutal in-fights between members. At their worst, online groups can become self-congratulatory, allowing students to articulately comprehend notions of classism, ableism, homophobia, sexism and racism, whilst simultaneously fostering an environment of demonisation towards those who do not hold the exact views of the majority.
The paradox of social media is that whilst it has granted us access to billions of minds and extraordinary ideas, it has also aided the rapid construction of bubbles, boundaries and walls, between the north and south, the uneducated and educated, the young and the old, as our country has become increasingly fractured. Users can insulate and immerse themselves with content that fits their ideologies, whilst blissfully ignoring the outside world and its vast scope of political opinion. I understand the security of such online bubbles and I myself have been sucked into many at university. However, when the bubble bursts, either through a national event such as Brexit or local incidents of bigotry, as young people we need to be equipped with the skills to articulately challenge conflicting viewpoints. Certainly, we should be angered, ashamed and shocked at the state of national affairs, but not paralysed by the notion that this country isn't the progressive paradise that we believed it to be. Instead, by transporting the positives of online activism, its passion and nurturing atmosphere, onto our streets, schools and communities, the aspirations held by many young students for a fairer and more equal society, can indeed become a practical reality.