By Charlize Alcaraz, Alexandra Holyk and Heidi Lee
More students have come forward with screenshots of messages sent to them by Adapt candidates, urging them to vote for the slate during the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) 2021-22 election.
The allegations include claims that Vaishali Vinayak, current vice-president equity and incoming vice-president operations, used equity initiatives to access students’ contact information.
The Eyeopener previously reported that Adapt candidates sent unsolicited messages to students—including three editors from The Eye‘s masthead—to vote for their slate. Some candidates also asked for screenshots of their vote for confirmation.
These actions go against the RSU elections procedure code implemented in the election, which prohibits candidates from sending unsolicited electronic messages for campaigning.
Last year’s elections procedure code also stated that campaigning through electronic mail is prohibited, as well as sending unsolicited messages to prospective voters. The code defined electronic mail as “any form of written communication and thus includes direct messages sent via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.”
In an email to the Ryersonian, chief returning officer (CRO) Jenna Rose confirmed that in light of the online election, candidates were “allowed to reach out to their fellow students digitally, via social media messages, texts, or calls” and ask for votes. However, candidates were instructed to “to not send inappropriate messages,” Rose said.
In an email to The Eyeopener, Vinayak implied that Adapt had received demerit points from the CRO, but on follow-up said she was “not comfortable disclosing the number of demerits that were given out.”
Food Box allegations
Maria Silvia*, a third-year student from the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD), said she felt pressured to vote by Vinayak.
Through the RSU’s Food Box program for students facing food insecurity, applicants were required to provide personal information including their full name, phone number and address for delivery. Silvia was one of the students who applied for the program and provided her information to the RSU.
Silvia said Vinayak sent her a text message on March 18 asking her if they could get on a quick call, with no prior context as to what the call was about.
Over the phone, Vinayak instructed Silvia to vote for Adapt candidates, Silvia alleged.
“I was having a family emergency and I didn’t know how to say no, so I [figured I’d] just do it fast and go deal with my family,” Silvia said. “I didn’t even read the names of the people I voted for because there was such pressure.”
In an email to The Eye, Vinayak said the Food Box allegations on Ryerson’s subreddit are “inflammatory” because she worked closely with students. She said many of them expressed interest in her policies in 2020-21 and thought they would be interested in her campaign for 2021-22 as well.
“I messaged a couple of people who I knew on a personal level after I was acquainted with them through the Food Box program,” said Vinayak, asserting that she didn’t violate any of the campaign rules or regulations.
“Never did I at any point ‘pressure’ folks to vote for me,” she said. According to Vinayak, she only informed folks of her platform and showed them how to vote.
She added that Rose and deputy returning officer Rafay Malik said campaigning through messages to friends and classmates is permitted as long as messages are “appropriate.”
However, Silvia said she had no close relationship with Vinayak. She said she doesn’t even know Vinayak’s last name and their only interaction was when Vinayak delivered the Food Box to Silvia’s house in early March.
“This Food Box is really good for me [because] I get most of my veggies from there and it helps me for a couple [of] weeks,” she said. “I’m grateful for this person and I also don’t want to lose the opportunity.”
However, Silvia said after she voted for Adapt, she felt like she had done something wrong.
“It’s not that it wasn’t my choice. It was something they told me to do and I feel like they’re forcing you to vote for them, instead of letting us choose by yourself,” she said.
Silvia said she wished her vote could be retracted. “It’s not that I want [Adapt] not to win, but at least I want my vote not to count because it wasn’t like I did the action freely, you know?”
Checking off the “voter’s list”
Sheikh Abid Rahman, a second-year aerospace engineering student, said he was approached by Vinayak through Instagram direct messages to help her with campaigning and creating a “voter list.”
Rahman said he knew Vinayak because he also signed up for the RSU’s Food Box program and he reached out to her when he was running as a candidate for the Board of Governors student representative election.
Rahman said he spoke to Vinayak over the phone and was offered a position as the student groups director on the RSU’s Board of Directors if he helped her campaign.
According to Vinayak, she reached out because she was impressed with Rahman’s campaign platform during the Board of Governors elections and believed he was an “excellent fit” for the Adapt slate.
“I wanted to bring him on board as a volunteer…I mentioned to [him] that he would make an excellent student groups director due to his student involvement,” she said.
When Rahman later mentioned he would vote for the For the Students slate since his friend was on the team, Vinayak told him “you should’ve let me know before,” adding that she was “counting on him.”
“I was happy to help you when you were in quarantine,” wrote Vinayak. Rahman said she was referring to the Food Box program the RSU offered.
Rahman told The Eye he was mad when Vinayak mentioned that she helped him with the Food Box. He replied to Vinayak saying, “that was a cheap shot.”
“I guess she wanted to use me or my campaign account, but I didn’t vote for them so I can’t really say they used me,” he said.
In screenshots obtained by The Eye, Rahman also asked Vinayak why a voter’s list is necessary.
“I just want to make sure that we don’t have the same people because then I won’t reach out to them, or I will tell you don’t reach out to them,” Vinayak told Rahman.
In an email to The Eye, Vinayak said the slate created a list with names and contact numbers of all their friends.
“When the election officially commenced, we reached out to folks on our list to inform them about our campaign and show them the voting process,” she stated. “We were entirely within our rights to create and use our ‘voters list.’ We did not break any rules by providing our constituents with more information on our platform.”
Although Vinayak said the “voter’s list” only included their friends and classmates, other students told The Eye they had no prior relationships with any members of the Adapt slate before they received messages from them.
Headspace privacy breach
Edith Newman*, a second-year creative industries student, said five candidates from the Adapt slate followed her on Instagram during the campaigning period.
She first received a message from Essha Khan, an FCAD director candidate that lost in the elections. “I would be so happy if you could vote for my team, Team Adapt,” Khan’s message reads. “When selecting the names on the ballot make sure you select ALL names with the word ADAPT next to them.”
“Once you’re done just send me a [check mark emoji] so I can cross you off my list,” the message continued.
Newman said she had no prior relationships with the five candidates that followed her on Instagram, including Khan. She also does not recall being in the same class as them.
“I was confused on how I was on a list… I’m not really sure what this list was or how I was on it,” she said. “I don’t follow any of them on Instagram, nor have I ever made contact with any of the Adapt team.”
Other students alleged that candidates messaged them by using contact information collected by the RSU’s Headspace app membership registration form.
Newman and Cansu*, a third-year business management student, said they received a message on Instagram from incoming RSU vice-president equity Maleha Yasmin about their registration for the app.
“I trusted the RSU on keeping my personal information, whereas this person breached my privacy…for her own benefit”
Headspace is a mindfulness app that provides guided exercises to help users meditate, focus, move and sleep. The RSU announced its partnership with Headspace on its Instagram page on March 16.
The application required students to include personal information, including their Instagram username. However, the Instagram portion of the application has since been removed.
Though Cansu said she’s never seen this on other applications before, she included her handle thinking that someone from the union would message her on Instagram about Headspace.
In an email to The Eye, Vinayak said: “We collect social media information in almost all of our forms. It gives us a way to connect with students.”
Cansu said she was confused as to why Yasmin messaged her from her personal account and thought she was going to ask her to vote for her in the election.
“We received your application for a free Headspace membership and we are so excited for you to embark on your [meditation] & mindfulness journey,” Yasmin’s message read.
The message from Yasmin included directions on how to set up the Headspace app and advised Cansu to send any questions she might have to the RSU vice-president operations’ email. Though there were no requests to vote for Yasmin or the Adapt slate, Cansu said she was still concerned about receiving the message from an Instagram account other than the RSU’s.
“I felt violated because I didn’t give her my personal Instagram account, I gave it to the RSU,” Cansu said. “I trusted the RSU on keeping my personal information, whereas this person breached my privacy and used my personal information for her own benefit.”
In addition to getting an Instagram message from Yasmin, Newman and Cansu also received a confirmation email from current vice-president operations Liora Dubinsky along with instructions on how to enrol with Headspace. Cansu replied to Dubinsky’s email saying there was a breach of privacy and she’d be able to provide screenshots, but she has yet to receive a response from Dubinsky.
Yasmin is currently a coordinator for the Centre for Women and Trans People (CWTP) and not a member of the RSU’s Board of Directors. There is no mention of the RSU working with the CWTP in their announcement.
“I didn’t even know [Yasmin] wasn’t the current VP of operations, so I don’t think she really had the authority to come and tell me that I was accepted for the Headspace application when that’s not her place,” Newman said.
Newman and Cansu did not respond to Yasmin’s message, nor did Yasmin explicitly ask them to vote for her.
*Name has been changed to protect the source’s privacy. Students are concerned for their privacy as the RSU has their addresses and other personal information due to the Food Box program application and other RSU services.