Earlier this month, after publishing an anti-Semitic post on Instagram, Gina Carano of The Mandalorian became the latest Disney star to be fired for controversial social media posts.
President Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, faces an uphill challenge for senate confirmation as a result of her previous harsh tweets about Republicans.
Kimberly Diei, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Pharmacy, was expelled for engaging in social media activities that violated “the Memphis health science center’s “professional standards” for students studying health and medicine.” Ms. Diei has since been reinstated but is suing the university arguing that the college’s enforcement of its professionalism policies violated her right to free speech in her private life.
These are only a few of the most recent examples of how our personal social media activities can interfere with and even derail scholarship, college, and career opportunities.
Also in the news earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a Pennsylvania public high school student who was punished by her school after she cursed her cheer team on Snapchat outside of school hours and grounds. The Supreme Court’s decision will hopefully provide needed guidance on student free speech rights on social media, and if public schools are constitutionally within their rights to punish student speech that takes place outside of school hours and grounds.
Regardless of whether any first amendment protections will ultimately apply, these cases present a teachable moment for demonstrating the importance of responsible and fully informed social media use. While we all have the right to publicly post just about any thought that comes into our heads, that right has never guaranteed such personal speech to be consequence-free.
The dichotomy between personal versus professional information no longer has any true significance in the world of social media. Each one of us has every opportunity to keep our personal thoughts, beliefs, and experiences private and off the public record by simply choosing not to post them to social media. Once posted, however, building a fence around what is personal versus what is professional is virtually impossible. Therefore, whether the posting is professional, biographical, political, religious, familial, sexual, sophomoric, or intellectual in nature, by voluntarily placing it in the public domain via social media, we are sharing that information with the world and it becomes part of our public portfolio.
For better or for worse, our personal actions have also always reflected upon and attached to the reputations of our families, our schools, our employers, and our communities. Social media has only exacerbated the impact of these actions as our posts can now reach tens of thousands of people in just a few moments. Social media makes each of us the personification of the schools, companies, and organizations we represent or are associated with which, in essence, makes us each a potential branding agent for these entities. Our personal social media activities directly impact the reputation of the third parties we represent and likewise, our own reputations are impacted by the activities of those we associate with online.
An apt description of this powerful concept was published several years ago by The Brown Daily Herald. The student editorial “Cleaning Up Social Media Pages” shined a light on the collective impact student social media activities had on the overall reputation of Brown University.
“When students post pictures of themselves participating in illegal or questionable activities, their online presentation could reflect poorly on Brown’s image.
As college students, we have the right to make our own decisions when it comes to drinking, smoking or other activities. But we have to be wary of making these decisions public because social media is increasingly how the world interacts with the Brown community.
Many of our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts can be linked to Brown, and how we portray ourselves online could jeopardize the way outsiders feel about the institution we represent. Perhaps that Facebook friend chooses another university over Brown because he is intimidated by the pictures of parties that far outnumber the pictures of classrooms. Perhaps your friend’s parents see some unsavory images online and encourage their son or daughter to consider another school.”“Cleaning Up Social Media Pages”, The Brown Daily Herald
Now, consider these facts in light of the foregoing:
On Valentine’s Day, a video was posted to Twitter showing two underaged students from your high school spouting out racial epithets while drinking alcohol. One of the students goes on to curse the Black Lives Matter movement. The video goes viral within your student, parent, and alumni communities. You receive a signed petition with an accompanying letter from angry alumni and current students calling for the expulsion of these two students who have tarnished the image of your institution. To further complicate matters, the mother of one of the students in the video teaches at your school and her father is a police officer in the local community.
What action would you take? Do you have all the information you need to make an informed decision?
- Has responsible social media use been taught at your school?
- Has your school published and distributed social media usage guidelines to students and parents?
- Has your school established any precedent that might impact your ability to act on your ultimate decision?
You’ve probably already guessed that the facts of this case are real and this decision belongs to the administrators at Immaculate Heart Academy in Bergen County, NJ. You can follow this unfolding story to track the progress.
Unfortunately, social media does not come with an instruction manual nor does use, in and of itself, make one digitally savvy. The digital natives, the Instagram generation, the selfie generation — whatever label we assign — is born texting, tweeting and socializing on digital. But, like all communication skills, strategic use of social media is a learned skill. Providing a formal education on responsible social media use is beneficial to students as they develop professional habits that are inclusive of social media, and look to avoid behavior that would be detrimental to their academic and professional careers.