No Room for Error: A Cautionary Tale of A Precarious Tweet

twitterI’m a mom as well as a marketer. As much as I’ve learned in this digital space, I have seen enormous opportunities for business as well as the downside impact of social media from both a brand and individual standpoint. As a parent, I sternly believe that I can’t necessarily shield my children from the dangers of social networking. Kids will do what they want, regardless. We all know this…we were there once.

While I can provide advice on what my kids should do/not do on these networks, I can’t be as vigilant in monitoring their behaviour or their experiences. Instead, I try to equip them with all that I know so they understand the potential dangers and are able to arm themselves if necessary. I wrote this article a few years back: Cyber-Bullying Hits Home when my daughter had her first experience with online torment. The incident was minor, thankfully and it didn’t have any lasting scars. It did, however, heighten her awareness into how this digital environment could wreak havoc on anyone. Case in point: An incident happened a few weeks ago with my nephew Christopher Spiegel. Chris has given me permission to write about his experience.

These Days We Are Judged By Our Content…NOT Our Character

How many times have we seen this? Brands and individuals posting content that may be seen as offensive, inappropriate or judgemental? My colleague, Amy Tobin has referenced the Social Media Mob many times in her posts. The reality is that in this fast-paced environment, people will often make quick judgements without taking into consideration the full context nor the individual viewpoint. In Christopher’s situation, this is precisely what happened:

I attend X High School (Please note: the school has requested it, as well as the rivalry school, not be named in this article) –  we have a very strong rivalry with another school down the street. A ton of kids were chirping each other on twitter and tweeting some harsh things and as a joke I tweeted, “Call some Dade kids and have them bring guns on Friday to shut you kids up…” It was just a joke because kids tweet similar things like that to mess with each other.


The very next day, Chris felt the impact of that one tweet. He was taken to the dean’s office and then immediately sent home. There was heightened sensitivity given the recent school shootings like Sandy Hooke, and most recently, Arizona. The very use of the word, “gun” alerted school authorities immediately. As per Chris,

I also now understand why they acted in a quick manner because it only takes one word or one second to change something.

He, therefore, awaited his fate… which took a number of days to process. Chris noted that the school had never dealt with an issue like this before. There was no precedence nor policy to reference. Instead they assembled a disciplinary committee to investigate all aspects of the situation, including Chris’s history, in order to recommend a suitable punishment.

Note: Chris is an “A” student, who is active in the school lacrosse team. He is well-liked by his peers, with no history of conflict, violence, criminal activity or mental illness.

Worse-case, Chris would face immediate dismissal from X High School and be forced to finish high school elsewhere. The timing could have an immediate impact on his quest for college admissions in the coming year. Not one to wait for the axe to fall, Chris’ mom advised him to be proactive and send a letter to the dean’s office admitting his guilt, giving clarity to the situation, and taking responsibility for whatever judgement on him the school imposed. Below is an excerpt from this letter:

My name is Christopher Spiegel, I am writing on behalf of an incident that occurred on January 8th 2014 on a social networking site called Twitter. At 11:08 pm I, Christopher Spiegel, tweeted (posted) something that was inappropriate and unacceptable. I take full responsibility for the tweet and have no one to blame besides myself. I can speak for myself as well as for my peers, at times in these social networks we as teenagers tend to forget whatever we post can be seen by everyone and it is open to the world.

When I “tweeted” this remark I was not thinking about the significance it can have, I thought it would be taken as a light joke with my peers but I did not think about how an adult who does not know me would take it… I understand a decision has to be made about my status as a student at X High School. I will respect any decision that the committee will need to review about my recent inappropriate action. This puts me in jeopardy in remaining a senior student. I will comply with any disciplinary penalty that is handed out to me to demonstrate I have offended my community. I will do anything to remain in X High School and continue my senior year. I want to truly apologize for my actions, which I am remorseful and regret doing what I did.

The Incident is Not an Isolated One…

Shortly after this happened to Chris, I saw this news headline, Saint Mary’s suspends six football players for tweets. Messages called hateful, violent, racist. Again, it was another incident that forced the University to suspend the students for conduct inconsistent with the school values:

One of the tweets quoted by UNews said: “to that b**ch that bit me last night. Hope your dead in a ditch. you are scum.” Another tweet included an offensive term for gays.

On January 30th, The School Chancellor from the University of Illinois alluded to this other incident on her blog:

On Monday, about a dozen students, upset that classes were not canceled because of cold weather, took to social media to criticize the decision and to attack me – in comments that were vulgar, crude and in some instances racist and sexist…What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence.

My friend, Amy Tobin, alerted me to the case last summer of 19-year-old Justin Carter, who was jailed for 5 months for posting what was supposed to be a sarcastic comment on Facebook. He was allegedly arguing with a friend on Facebook about an online video game. To his detriment, this is what happened:

Someone had said something to the effect of ‘Oh you’re insane. You’re crazy. You’re messed up in the head,'” Jack Carter told CNN affiliate KVUE in Austin. “To which he replied ‘Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head. I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still-beating hearts.’

It was a comment again taken out of context. With his parents being unable to afford the $500,000 bond, Justin was forced to remain behind bars for the duration of the sentence.

The Implication: Social Media is evolving communications everywhere

  1. This has allowed organizations as well as schools to have visibility into situations that were not so apparent before. As Chris told me, “In most cases, kids’ tweets go unnoticed by the administration”.
  2. The flagrant banter that occurs within schools and campuses is not new: “innuendo”, and “derogatory slurs” have simply migrated to a more public forum. But now there’s a higher price to pay.

Why Online Social Behaviour Needs Extreme Discretion

I shared this post last March, Teaching Our Kids Not to Treat the Internet as a Private Diary. It was a response to the type of posts I had seen on Tumblr: the need for validation, extreme oversharing, in-the-moment-type posting …. all without regard to inherent consequences.


My friend Marcie Warhaft Nadler appropriately responded,


It was clear that the next generation now lives in a world where potentially everything they do is exposed to scrutiny. I wrote,

…When I was younger, all my thoughts were kept in my private diary…These days that diary has been replaced by a public message board that can’t necessarily be erased…I read somewhere that it’s not that kids don’t care. Like all of us experience, it’s the consequences of their action that are separated from the action itself…If I smoke a pack of cigarettes now, does that mean that I’m going to get lung cancer in later years? We all, to some extent, live for today. From this perspective it’s no wonder why teens do what they do.

Why Schools Need to Also Adapt to this New Form of Communication

In the case of Chris and his error in judgement, precedence setting is everything. To date there are no firm policies for dealing with these sorts of incidents. Online has made it more difficult for officials to simply sweep things under the rug. In this article from Inside Higher Ed, Essay on need for colleges to engage students on their digital identities, there is a call for change:

Racist and derogatory slurs and innuendos happen every day, in our college and university student centers, in our residence halls, out on the field at games. And numerous colleges and universities have felt the wrath of social media outrage in response to a decision, changes in leadership, and other developments. As those of us in higher education know all too well, we lack the time, staff and resources to police our students on the Internet through disciplinary action. It’s simply not feasible or reasonable, nor is it conducive to free speech.

It’s more than just a call to develop appropriate procedure and policy to monitor and appropriately deal with the these matters fairly and efficiently. It’s about educating the staff and guiding students to develop their digital footprints responsibly. It’s also about leveraging the medium to determine opportunities that can promote more fluid and positive communications between faculty and students. It’s about deepening the school community in the process. According to Higher Ed,

Balance is necessary. All too often, schools take a reactive and/or risk averse stance on digital identity. We should be encouraging critical dialogue about how we engage with one another. The pressure is on for higher education to get with the program and be more relevant to what students need to become gainfully employed after college.

The Verdict

After detailed deliberation, Chris was contacted and was given this as reparation: He has been suspended from the lacrosse team for the remaining season; he was to receive 2-days in-school suspension; he has been forbidden from attending the prom, the graduation bash or any games or events. However, Chris has been given some reprieve and will be allowed to graduate and receive his diploma from X High School. It was a tough lesson for this high school student to learn and it has drastically changed the way he views situations and how he behaves:

I have learned that someone is always watching and that social networks aren’t private at all. You can tweet one thing and it can come back and smack you in the face. I have also learned that it’s very important to think before you post something and it’s just like thinking before you speak. Be smart, be safe, and be careful.

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Hessie Jones
CEO at ArCompany, and a seasoned digital strategist having held management positions for top Ad Agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, and Aegis Media. She also has extensive start-up experience with launch successes like Yahoo! Answers. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (^as we know it) is Doomed! She is also a cellist, speaker, MBA guest lecturer and an active writer for ArCompany, Huffington Post, Digital Journal and WhatsYourTech
Hessie Jones
Hessie Jones

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