Experts say student politicians should treat tweets like press conferences.
After a tweet and a viral video ended the campus political careers of two Texas college students, higher-education politicos have advice for their brethren: Adopt an official social media policy, and be more careful about what you post on Facebook and Twitter.
Concern over how up-and-coming campus political activists are using social media comes after a high-ranking Texas college Republican was caught on video using a gay slur, and two University of Texas (UT) Republican officials dispatched a message on Twitter about assassinating President Obama and another deemed racist by campus Republicans and Democrats alike.
Cassandra Wright, president of the UT Republicans, was the latest college political leader to draw national ire when on Dec. 18 she posted on Twitter, “My president is black, he snorts a lot of crack. Holla! #2012.”
“I don’t really see anything wrong with it,” Wright said shortly after her tweet was posted, according to media reports. “It’s just a personal comment, not representative of any group. Just freedom of speech, you know?”
Wright became president of the UT Republican group after former president Lauren Pierce posted a controversial tweet the same day a man fired several shots at the White House.
“Y’all as tempting as it may be, don’t shoot Obama. We need him to go down in history as the WORST president we’ve EVER had! #2012,” Pierce tweeted Nov. 16.
Politicos from campuses across the country said the regrettable tweets show the need for a thought-out social media policy among campus political organizations, including a designated person to monitor all Facebook and Twitter messages before they are made public.
“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.
“But student leaders are just that—student leaders, and their leadership is still a work in progress. It’s not surprising that many students aren’t as mature as one might hope,” he said. “And it’s really easy to think one’s Twitter feed is blocked, but fail to anticipate that someone else might re-tweet your controversial tweet, forgetting that you’ve limited the audience on your feed.”
College Republicans weren’t aware of campus-based social media controversies outside of Texas, and some officials called into question the state’s college GOP leadership.
“This seems to be a problem in Texas more than anywhere else, and I’m not sure if that’s a result of poor leadership or if that’s the culture down there,” said Ciavola, former president of the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) Republicans. “The Republican party doesn’t need people like this justifying stereotypes that are not true on a large scale. It’s inexcusable and frankly, if the [Texas] chapter can’t get their act together, maybe they shouldn’t have a chapter.”