College political leaders, social media prove to be dangerous combination

“There are times when you can make some snide remarks, but this is on a separate plane,” Mark Ciavola, state chair of the Nevada College Republicans, said of the UT tweets. “You cross the line from snarky to racist pretty quickly there.”

College students are aware of the permanence of web postings—even if the post is deleted, Twitter messages can be re-tweeted, for example—but some involved in campus politics are mimicking pundits in the overheated world of 24-hour cable news talking heads, Ciavola said.

“Students may believe that things like this are OK in the world of politics,” he said. “You need to get people’s attention, but also understand that politics can be a very emotional industry. … I think it’s a shame that there are people out there who think this is funny.”

In April, Charlie McCaslin, chairman of the Texas College Republicans, was caught on video using a gay slur—among other controversial statements—during an endorsement speech in which he appeared to be intoxicated.

The video was posted to Facebook.

McCaslin, a Southern Methodist University (SMU) student who made the speech at the Texas College Republicans Convention in Austin, resigned as chairman when the video went viral on the web and drew harsh criticism from across the political spectrum.

McCaslin, in an apology letter published in SMU’s student newspaper, said the on-camera remarks were “not reflective” of his “true feelings towards those groups.”

Before he left his post as assistant director of public affairs at George Washington University (GWU), Menachem Wecker said he often scheduled sit-down meetings with students who criticized the university on Twitter or Facebook.

Most of the students he met with, Wecker said, were surprised that he had seen their social media messages, believing only their friends and family could read the posts.

“Throughout history, people have often said untrue, hurtful, unsophisticated, and generally reprehensible things; the only difference in the social media era is that those unfortunate comments are search engine optimized,” said Wecker, co-founder of the Association for Social Media & Higher Education. “So students can, from a mathematical and statistical perspective, probably count on their tweets being relatively invisible, but that doesn’t provide license for spreading hate speech.”

College political leaders should treat every tweet and Facebook post as an online press conference that could be as open as an official address given from a podium, Wecker said.

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