15 Jun 2017 16:21 IST

Dangers of reckless online behaviour

It is important that we behave in the best manner possible at all times

As I have repeatedly noted, social media applications — Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook — are extremely unforgiving, especially on people with a quick draw. There’s no ‘Oops’ button to withdraw what you have said or forwarded. And unlike in the real world, where spoken words disappear into thin air and can be denied as taken out of context, these online monsters will remain with us through eternity.

There have been numerous examples of how a crass post on Facebook or a careless rant on Twitter have caused problems for the authors. An extreme example of the consequences of reckless online behaviour was highlighted two weeks ago, when Harvard University rescinded admission offers to 10 students of the incoming class of 2021 for allegedly posting insensitive comments online.

Before we debate Harvard’s decision, let us review what we know.

Early Decision programme

Many students take advantage of a programme called ‘Early Decision’ offered by many colleges and universities in the United States. ED allows students to pick one institution that they really like and commit to it early. In return, universities reward this loyalty by being a little more lenient in evaluating their applications. After all, colleges love students who are enthusiastic about their school.

But there’s a catch. If the college offers admission under ED, the student is bound to accept the offer. Walking away from it in the hopes of landing a better admission from somewhere else is not an option. In a sense, ED is like an arranged marriage.

If you don’t get into your ED school, there is no harm or consequence. You simply wait for offer letters from the regular admissions cycle. ED, therefore, makes sense for students whose dream school is an elite Ivy League institution. And as early as December last year, these students had committed offers from Harvard which they gladly accepted, putting an end to the nightmare that is the college admissions process.

Incoming Harvard students are generally invited to join a Facebook group to create a virtual community even before college starts. Last December, from this group, a spin-off “R-rated” group was created by a few students. Within the smaller Facebook group, reported Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, students sent each other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children. Some of the messages had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups.

When the Harvard admissions office came to know of this, it sent an email to the members asking them to explain their actions within 24 hours. The office, then, rescinded the admission offers of 10 students. University officials have previously said that Harvard’s decision to rescind a student’s offer is final and is not subject to appeal.

There are so many issues here that I don’t know where to start.

Problems in narrative

First, these students are teenagers, in the 12th grade, still attending high school in their home districts. The only thing that they had in common was their letter of admission from Harvard. Their behaviour has not been moulded by the university yet.

Second, the offences were not committed on property affiliated with Harvard and the victims were not affiliated with the university either. The students did not speak publicly in a Harvard auditorium or in a Harvard building against members of a Harvard community. They expressed their thoughts — horrible and unpardonable as they may be — on a private group on Facebook.

Third, Harvard ignored a fundamental human right that citizens enjoy in a democracy — the benefit of being deemed innocent until proven guilty. There was no due process for these offending students; they were not invited to an interview by the admissions committee where the students are given a chance to defend their actions. Perhaps a student had his Facebook account hacked and the hacker posted all of these messages. Or he was no longer active on Facebook and a friend, who knew his login credentials, repeatedly posted in his name.

Fourth, what about a person’s right to free speech? The US Supreme Court has held that simply because society finds speech repulsive, such speech cannot be restricted. In a landmark 8-0 decision in 1988, the Court ruled in favour of Hustler magazine, holding that a depiction of a famous public figure, Jerry Falwell as an incestuous drunk, was protected speech. If these 10 teenagers had met in someone’s house and engaged in the same kind of speech, would Harvard have rescinded their offers?

Fifth, where was the harm? Repulsive though their actions were, these students did not direct their comments against an individual but against broad groups of people — like Mexicans and children. No individual was harmed or defamed.

Sixth, how do we even know if these teenagers meant what they said? Do they have a record in a police station of abusing a child? Did Harvard investigate their criminal behaviour? Also, where does tolerance come in here? Could these students have been warned and as penalty, be publicly identified on the Facebook group stating that actions have consequences?

Another chance

I could go on but that is not the point. What is important is that the life of these 10 otherwise bright students has come to a screeching halt. Harvard’s acceptance rate was 5.2 per cent this year, which means that these kids were very smart. Because they were likely ED candidates, they would have had to spurn offers of admission from other schools. Even if they weren’t ED candidates, which school now would make them an offer of admission?

I am not condoning their actions. If I was their parent, I would be shocked that they held such views and would have taken appropriate action. My main complaint against Harvard is that it is clearly overstepping its role by trying to be Big Brother to these students and using its power to ruin the lives of 10 youngsters, without giving them a chance to redeem themselves.

What is critical for members of the BLoC community is to realise that in today’s world, it is important that we behave in the best manner possible at all times. We should not entertain bad thoughts to begin with. Even more importantly, we should never post something online or say something in public that we would not tell our parents, elders, teachers or our siblings.

A simple rule, but it works every time.

Recommended for you