Despite its ubiquity, social media is still a relatively new concept. As we find more ways than ever to express ourselves to millions of other users—a limited-character tweet, a disappearing video clip, a group message—our understanding of privacy and online ethics has struggled to keep up. Many people still believe that bad online behavior won’t result in real-world consequences. But Roseanne Barr, whose ABC reboot of her sitcom was canceled after she posted a racist tweet, and Harley Barber, who was kicked out of the University of Alabama after posting an Instagram video of her repeatedly saying the n-word, can tell you that’s not the case.
Texas Tech recently experienced its own social media awakening of sorts. On June 21, a Twitter user anonymously posted screenshots of a group message in a GroupMe called “Frat Chat,” in which various students, including the president of the Texas Tech Interfraternity Council, wrote racist messages and comments, including some about killing immigrants. “I’m telling you build a wall, and the us govt. can sell permits for legal hunting on the border and we can make a sport of this, can be a new tax revenue stream for the govt. [sic]” read one message.
The screenshots immediately sparked outrage at the university. That same night, Texas Tech put out a tweet calling the messages “abhorrent” and stating that the university was conducting an investigation into the matter. Texas Tech IFC also released a statement on Twitter that the comments in the group chat did not “represent the ideals and values” of the organization or the university. The next morning, the fraternity council announced that they had appointed a new president.
— Texas Tech IFC (@ifc_texastech) June 22, 2018
The messages show casual hate and bigotry voiced by Texas Tech students, but unfortunately, their actions aren’t rare. When people forget that online communication has real-life repercussions, they feel free to engage in behavior that they wouldn’t necessarily display in public. “Freedom of online speech does not entail freedom of offline consequences,” says Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an associate professor of psychology and advertising at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Dark Side of Social Media. “There’s something different about television and radio and traditional media and the new age of digital media. The key word is ‘social’—it’s literally media that brings people together. And that’s opened up a floodgate of differences in how media is used and consumed.”
On social media platforms and online comment boards, the distance of a screen provides people with a false sense of anonymity. In the case of messaging apps like GroupMe, there’s an additional sense of what Scheinbaum calls a “perception of privacy.” Unlike Twitter or Instagram, on GroupMe, posts are only visible to members in a chat group, so users may expect that statements made in a group are only visible to like-minded individuals. But the Texas Tech case demonstrates that it only takes one person taking screenshots to reveal the messages to a wider audience.
As Scheinbaum sees it, as long as people display offensive and inappropriate behavior online, these situations are inevitable. She believes the important questions are about what happens next: how individuals, institutions, and social media platforms should respond to offensive messages. “What I want to encourage us to do now is think about what are the next steps,” she says, highlighting the roles of individuals and of companies. “What can we do as people? What can we do as social media users, but what can companies do? What is the role of Facebook in all of this? What is the role of GroupMe, [which] is owned by Microsoft? Are they devoid of consequences when things like this happen on their platform? And how are scandals like this going to impact the social media platform?”
At Texas Tech, beyond their initial statement condemning the messages, the university has continued to reiterate its commitment to diversity. In a statement released on July 5, Lawrence Schovanec, president of the university, wrote that the school was continuing its investigation into the messages and that the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Office of the Dean of Students were reviewing the university’s guidelines in the Code of Student Conduct. Schovanec also wrote that he was addressing calls for more immediate action from the university, but did not provide specifics. “I have conferred extensively with Dr. Sumner, Dean Gregory and general counsel and we have carefully reviewed our options for actions per our Code of Student Conduct and the law,” he writes. “Our Constitution protects the right to speak, even when the nature of the speech is as disturbing as what these individuals wrote in their messages.”
As far as the behavior of individuals, Scheinbaum advises users to remember that online and offline behavior are connected. “Model good behavior offline to encourage good behavior online,” she says. “Especially with young people who’ve grown up as digital natives, it’s important to model empathetic behavior in the real world and appreciating the opinions of others in the real world. If we’re like that in the real world it will translate to the digital world too.”