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The college admissions process for the nation’s most prestigious universities has always been hyper-competitive, with many applicants working with essay tutors, taking SAT prep courses and even hiring private coaches to guide them through the process. But now it looks like they’re going to need to wrap their heads around proper social media use as well.
Harvard’s social media nightmare
In an unprecedented move, Harvard University – perhaps the poster child for the competitive college admissions process – recently decided to revoke offers of admission for 10 high school seniors found to be trafficking in politically incorrect and highly offensive social media memes. That’s right – the students were the types of high-achieving types that Ivy League schools love to accept, but Harvard decided to later reject them after finding out more about their social media activity.
The problem was that Harvard opened up a private Facebook page for these students of the Class of 2021 to meet before they arrived on campus. But that’s where things went off the rails. The students decided to one-up one another with more and more audacious social media memes, even going so far as to create a private Facebook group chat called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” From there, it was a race straight to the bottom, with students creating memes that ended up being racist and intolerant.
Issues of free speech and privacy
That all raises an interesting question, though: Should universities be able to disqualify applicants from the admissions process simply for content or comments they leave on social media? (Especially if those social media sites are “private”) In many ways, it’s similar to another problem that has created a media maelstrom: the ability of employers to take action against their employees for photos posted on social media, or to pass over applicants for a position after checking out their social media profiles.
It’s obvious that universities don’t want to encourage a campus environment where certain racial, ethnic or gender groups feel unwelcome. And they certainly don’t want to have a bunch of privileged kids with very bad ideas hanging out together and causing a lot of headaches for the university. Just ask the University of Virginia, which is still dealing with the aftermath of a very nasty racially-motivated gang rape incident (now discredited) that made it into the pages of Rolling Stone magazine in November 2014.
There are a lot of different issue involved here – like the right to free speech and the right to privacy. At what point do sophomoric social media memes turn into hate speech?
And, by the way, what’s really the difference between Harvard University doing some “extreme vetting” of future students and the U.S. government doing some “extreme vetting” of immigrants before they enter our country (including the review of their social media pages for signs of extremist behavior)?
A chilling effect on free speech
And, remember, the type of mentality that led to the students having their offers of admission revoked at Harvard is also the type of mentality that led to the creation of the world’s largest social media company. When Mark Zuckerberg and his friends created Facebook at Harvard, it was really just a way to check out and rate pretty girls as part of a “hot or not” website. [At one point, Zuckerberg mentioned that he was a “little intoxicated” and even joked about comparing some Harvard students to farm animals.] That was back in 2013 – just imagine what would have happened today.
So there might be trade-offs involved here. Ivy League universities want to be places where people can share and discuss great ideas, but they could be turning into places where true “free speech” is no longer possible.