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Casting the First Tweet …

Harvard University recently set up a Facebook page so its Class of 2021 could meet and socialize online before arriving on campus this fall. A few those students then created a separate private chat group that reportedly started out with lighthearted social commentary but ended up with posts that were explicit, obscene, advocated sexual assault, and mocked the death of children. And when officials at Harvard learned about the posts, the school revoked its admission offers for 10 students, according to the Harvard Crimson.

It was a tough life lesson for the students, and another warning for the rest of us when it comes to how we use social media.

An NBC News story quoted legal experts who believe the issue is “cut-and-dry” – the students have no recourse against the school. Among other things, the Harvard-sponsored Facebook page included a warning that said the school reserved the “right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

Amy Adler, a professor at New York University School of Law, pointed out that it was “bad judgment” that likely cost the students their spots at the Ivy League campus – bad judgment that was out there for the world to see.

“Very little you say online is private,” Adler said. “The footprint you leave online lasts a very long time so it requires you to consistently exercise judgment.”

More than 2.3 billion people currently use some form of social media, according to statista.com, including 81 percent of the U.S. population. That’s up from just 24 percent in 2008. And it doesn’t take much surfing on the web to realize that many users aren’t always friendly. As author Dave Burchett points out, “The anonymity of cyberspace can make the mean-spirited downright evil.” Not only that, but even those who don’t have evil intent can slip down the slippery slope that leads to the type of poor judgment that hurts other people and ruins relationships.

So how can we all use social media more wisely, judging and offending less?

We need to start by using filters for our social networks. Most Internet filters block things from coming in, but I’m talking about publicity and social media filters that monitor what goes out. Burchett, for instance, recommends that we only post messages that edify, encourage, and inspire. Those are worthy goals. I’d add that one way we achieve those types of goals is by being acutely aware of the heart of our motives and of how our messages come across.

Most Internet filters block things from coming in, but leaders need publicity and social media filters that monitor what goes out.

In other words, I believe the tone of a blog, Tweet, post, meme, or any other social message should include two other things: It should reflect an effort to comprehend the issues being discussed, and it should reflect a spirit of respect for people, especially those who might disagree with you.

It’s so easy to be opinionated and to judge in our society. My daughter and I were discussing this not long ago when she paraphrased a quote she had heard: “Be kind. Everybody is fighting a battle you don’t know.” Unfortunately, I don’t always give other people the benefit of a doubt. I don’t always know where they’re coming from before I express my opinion. I just know where I’m coming from. So I need a filter, and I believe most other leaders need one, too.

The filters I suggested, by the way, aren’t an all-inclusive list. They are starting points. Use them and others you might come up with to rise above the fray, because you might be smart enough to get into Harvard but your actions will reveal your character and ultimately establish your path.

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