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Social Media, Leadership, and September 11th


Before the end of 2017, an article (which can be read here) posted about the story of a student at Georgia Tech who was upset that the school was “monitoring” (I use quotes there specifically for a reason I’ll discuss below) his social media accounts.

The student requested his records after suspecting he was called into the President’s office under suspicion he was part of a group of individuals who set fire to a police vehicle. When he received these records, he learned the school in fact had laid out his social media presence. It connected his political affiliations, which conventions he was attending, and even the groups he was moderating as an admin. All information was pulled from public posts. In addition, he was not reprimanded or disciplined for anything he posted on social media.

The response to all of this is concern over the impact of free speech. Are we really comfortable with institutional collection of this sort of data?

This story interests me for numerous reasons. First, the implications on the concept of digital leadership, an institution’s responsibility and/or freedom to gather data about students, and finally the concepts of security - both perceived security and actual security.

As a digital leader, we need to recognize, just like in our face to face interactions, what we do in public will impact the effectiveness of our ability to lead. We didn’t have social media when I was a college student in the 90s, but I learned quickly that when I was in public, if I did something incongruent with my character, or reputation, it was going to get back to me. One of the concepts I learned was that leadership and freedom are usually inversely correlated. The more of a leader you are, the less freedom (and privacy). you have...in most cases.

In the digital world, this is even more true. What we forget (which was widely discussed at the dawn of the MySpace/facebook age) is that when you make a public post, it is NOT like writing in your journal. It is posting a billboard. Early on, I got to meet Mark Zuckerberg and hear him speak. He discussed the concept of privacy and how users have explicit control of their privacy, but they choose to remain public. It’s the default. Most don’t want to bother being private because in the end Facebook is about connecting people to each other. So anyone who has expectations that what we do and say online will remain private will be extremely disappointed. In fact, many of the discussions I have with colleagues and students is around the entire loss of privacy. It really doesn’t exist today, unless you completely avoid the internet.

Second, when we began the digital journey almost 15 years ago, one of the concepts we discussed was the issue of “monitoring.” The conventional wisdom at the time was that if schools monitored social media, they were creating an ethic of care where if they missed something, they would be liable. For example, if it came out that staff had the job to watch housing’s social media space, and a student posted something and the staff member missed it, the university would be on the hook. However, if the staff became AWARE of something in the public social media domain, they would need to respond to it. Sort of like RAs...if you didn’t see it, smell it, or hear it, you wouldn’t need to take action. If you didn’t see something online, you didn’t need to respond. Once you DID become aware of something, then you had to respond, or be liable.

Fast forward a little bit, it became more mainstream for schools to monitor mentions of their school. This was considered best practice because of issues around branding. If people were talking badly about your housing program, your department, or your school, and you didn’t respond, it would impact real retention, recruitment, and other campus functions. Monitoring became the norm.