16 Oct 2020

Auckland University's 'bizarre' files on students' social media posts

4:33 pm on 16 October 2020

The University of Auckland monitored students' social media activity almost every day for more than six months, producing an 82-page dossier of "online activity".

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University of Auckland student magazine Craccum discovered the dossier kept by staff on students' social media activity. Photo: Unknown

The files include posts made about body issues, relationship breakups and masturbation.

The document is 30,000 words and has more than 1000 entries linking to public social media posts. It was obtained by the university's student magazine, Craccum, which provided it to RNZ.

Craccum co-editor and article author Dan Meech said he was "weirded out by the depth" of the monitoring.

The person who gave the magazine the file called it "one of the most bizarre documents" he had ever seen.

The university released a statement to Craccum, stating the monitoring was to understand the "sentiment and vibe" of students on "important issues".

A university spokesperson reiterated this in a statement to RNZ, saying they kept an eye on concern and affect students.

Along with feedback from student representative and surveys, and inquiries through contact centres, this activity would help inform "various student support functions to enable relevant and timely support", the spokesperson said.

The Microsoft Word document covers from late March through to October this year and contains near-daily bullet-pointed entries from Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Reddit, with links to posts students wrote over the period.

Names are seldom included in the document, but several links click through to students' personal social media pages.

Many links go to anonymous posts on university "confessions" Facebook pages.

While the document is not publicly accessible, it is not password protected.

Some entries are linked to university study, including "Student wondering what will happen with online exams after we return to campus", with a link to a Reddit post. In other threads, students seek advice on which papers to take.

Many other entries, particularly from the anonymous "UoA: meaningful confessions" page, are highly personal posts about romantic relationships, break ups, mental health, physical matters and sexuality, with no clear link to the university.

"Post from a student struggling to lose weight, helpful comments," one said, with a link to the anonymous post.

"Confession about the pain and emotions related to periods," said another, also anonymous.

"Post asking how to get an item delivered without the family asking questions (sex-related item)", and "Post wishing for better friends," another read, all anonymous.

"Post about lack of privacy for masturbation in lockdown," was included.

Another: "Post questioning whether to get back with her ex (from a student who doesn't even go here!)."

As the year goes on, each day's entries generally lengthen. Some days have 30 or more entries, and are divided into themes: academic, online exams, graduation, return to campus, mental health/ wellbeing, campus life, memes, and personal.

Meech said access to the document came fortuitously through a mostly unrelated Official Information Act request to the university.

He was shocked when he saw the extent of it.

"I think it is an overreach," Meech told RNZ.

"It does make you feel a little bit uncomfortable when you're studying at the university and publishing things online," he said.

"I can see that from the university's point of view, it might be good to be able to gauge a view of what students are thinking, but the depth to which it was going into... I just found it a bit bizarre that the university was monitoring erotica stories and students talking to other students about... the price of muffins."

The fifth-year arts and law student does not know how many people had access to the file.

Access allows people to click through to students' social media profiles.

Meech said it was an odd use of resources at a time when the university was struggling financially.

A University of Auckland statement sent to Craccum said:

"We know that students communicate about and respond to issues via social media and looking at what is being posted is one of the ways that the university listens to the student voice and gets a sense of the student sentiment in real time.

"We collate views that have been posted on public channels and use it to understand the views and sentiments of students on important issues.

"We don't take note of any individual students but observe themes, sentiment and vibe of the student body."

In a statement to RNZ, a university spokesperson said while the topics noted may seem like "strange examples", but they wanted to at least be aware of the wide range of issues affecting students for which they could offer support.

Asked about the period of time for which this activity had been happening, the spokesperson said: "Like most organisations, we have been using what we see on social media as a way to better understand our stakeholders (in this case our students) as long as people have been using it to publicly share their opinions."

The document was intended to be an internal one for areas that provided student support services and pastoral care, the spokesperson said.

They added that while some individual posts might be quoted, "this is done to give a flair of the commentary on a particular issue. There is no 'tracking' or 'monitoring' of individual students."

"Understanding what students are saying and thinking via social media helps us to improve our communications to ensure they have relevance, helps us to understand if there are any issues with any of our services including whether or not students are aware of them and understand how to access them, and helps us to understand in real time what issues may be a factor for students so that we can proactively promote services that might be able to assist students."

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