When Noah Huerta, a freshman at Arizona State University, logged on to his Twitter account in November 2017, instead of his typical feed of celebrity news, memes, or music, he was surprised to see one of his classmates tweeting the “N word” and stating she had “jungle fever.” Huerta was angry. He considered the classmate a friend, and the incident caused him to distance himself from her. This kind of digital offense is not rare; in fact, it’s quickly becoming commonplace on college and university campuses across the country.
The digital age has introduced a new venue for racial harassment among college students through social-media platforms. This generation is immersed in social networks. More than 80 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds use some form of social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Many social-media platforms offer users the possibility of uploading racially charged photos, videos, and statements with few restrictions. In this new environment, hateful messages spread rapidly. Twenty years ago, university officials would likely have managed these matters with relative privacy, involving few beyond the immediate campus community; now an act of campus racial bias can make national headlines within hours.
This new digital environment presents college administrators with competing incentives. They understand that their university may lose applicants, esteem, and revenue if it is publicly identified as unresponsive to racism. Still, administrators might be wary of potential backlash if they dole out punishment to those who seem to behave badly on social media, only to find out the story is more complicated than the post initially reveals. It has been more than a decade since officials at Duke University punished the lacrosse team after what appeared to be a “smoking gun” e-mail seemed to confirm a young black woman’s allegations of having been raped by several white members of the team. When charges were dropped, Duke officials were excoriated. The Duke Lacrosse backlash launched the career of Richard Spencer, who led the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
The question is whether university officials can do more than balance the concerns of institutional reputation. It is far more important to the black students on campus to know their well-being, and not the institution’s reputation, is motivating the official response.
Assistant Professor Meredith Clark at the University of Virginia, who researches the intersections of race, media, and power, struggled to name a university that she thinks addresses social-media incidents adequately.
“To date, I have yet to see a university handle essentially a social-media crisis well, particularly one that their students are involved in.” Clark said. “I really have not seen a university do that well. If there were one that had done it well…we might not know about it. The problem would’ve been handled in a way that really didn’t draw a lot of attention.”