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

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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.

chris

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.

hjoversharing

My friend Marcie Warhaft Nadler appropriately responded,

marcie

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.

Image source: carrotblog.com

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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 Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience with launch successes like Yahoo! Answers. Hessie is also an active blogger/writer for ArCompany, Huffington Post, Digital Journal and WhatsYourTech.ca
Hessie Jones
Hessie Jones
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  1. Fantastic post about an incredibly important topic, Hessie! This is something parents, students, and schools need to be talking about a lot more. I coach people on presentation and professional communication (including resumes, interview skills, and digital "image"). Because professional communication skills are so important, I also spend a lot of time helping high school / college students develop them. As you brilliantly put it, "we are judged by our content NOT by our character". An ill-advised tweet can lead to professional ruin (as in the Justine Sacco case), but it can also lead to far more terrifying consequences like the criminal prosecution of Justin Carter. In a previous life, I was a criminal defense attorney. While I never had a client arrested BECAUSE of a social media post, I had plenty of clients who left incriminating content all over "public" social media sites. It seemed obvious to me that it was unwise to post about being a great driver when "wasted' … when one was charged with driving under the influence. But I routinely had to explain to clients (especially younger ones) that, if I could see the posts, the prosecutors could as well. They were often surprised that their social media comments could have any impact on the outcome of their case. Given the serious ramifications of social media posts, I completely agree with you that education about how to cultivate a responsible digital identity is crucial for this and future generations.
    My recent post Give Promotion-Worthy Presentations with New Book by HugSpeak Founder

    • Lauren, everything you say makes sense. The Justine Sacco case is another circumstance that, by its very nature, will cause people to STOP and think about implications before they click "Post". Today, these are living examples of what can happen if there is no proper system in place to properly vet and judge content. Perception is everything and people judge immediately without thinking. It's how we're wired, unfortunately. Emotion over logic. That's why systems need to be put in place to override the "mob" mentality and put some sensibility and fairness into these situations.
      My recent post sophacles on This Phyllis Wise hate is getting out of hand. Calm the fuck down people.

  2. Christopher Spiegel says:

    My name is Christopher Spiegel, I am the subject of this article after this situation I felt obligated to share my story with others. Twitter can be great but it can also be not so great. I think it is very important that my peers and the parents of my peers to be aware of situations like mine. It can be prevented and I want others to know that, this article does an amazing job doing that.

  3. I just noticed this on Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/UIUC/comments/1w9bzc/this…. It's sad to see the social media mob take to this form of hatred because of a decision that was "unpopular". I was glad to see this comment on Reddit: "I'm really pretty disappointed. It sounds like a bunch of entitled freshmen throwing a tantrum about not getting a snow day. Grow up, people. This is college. You don't want to go to class? DON'T GO! Your classes take attendance? Don't be a bitch, and fucking go to class. You're going to be fine."

  4. Hessie, it's unfortunate that your nephew Chris made the decision he did. He sounds like he has a lot going for him and with this life lesson, that looks as though he has learned from, he'll be better equipped in the future.

    As a father of an almost 3 year old I think about what the future holds for my little girl. I think about how I'm going to protect her from this extremely critical mob mentality online world. Maybe this generation growing up with social media will have to take the hits so that they may educate future ones because I know their celebrity role models are doing a very poor job at it.

  5. DWilliams, PhD RN says:

    This is with out a doubt the most stupid, moronic situation I can imagine. Denying him the ability to participate in his senior activities serves no useful purpose except to create a bitter memory. The kid made an adolescent mistake, owned up to it and learned from it. If that is the purpose of sanctions, a two day suspension would have served the purpose. Instead, the school appears to have over reacted and is being punitive. It doesn't appear that they are interested in a true learning experience but rather in sacrificing one kid. Just plain meanness! A whole unblemished academic record appears to not matter at all. I am furious that alleged educators refuse to look at this in the content of 17 years of "good kid" slashed down in one moment over a tiny lapse in judgement.

    • hessiej says:

      I totally agree with you, but from a school's perspective, precedence setting is everything. And there are stakeholders involved that will probably be scrutinizing the decision. I'm not sure why they chose the punishments they did but I can only guess that there needed to be some sort of consequence given. Chris, unfortunately has been the example for a policy that needs to be drafted and enacted. I'm sure more reasonable judgements will be passed as this evolves. However, for now, everyone's trying to figure it out.

      Chris' academic record, hopefully does not constrain his application to college. It is, as you say, moronic:(
      My recent post Facebook: Does This 10-Year Old Need Some Serious Time Out?

    • RB, Major, US Army says:

      I completely agree with you. Chris has become the victim of an institution that is acting more reactionary than proactively to the societal influences of technological change. I've know Chris personally for many years. He is not only extremely intelligent scholar, but also a gifted athlete and outstanding citizen that manages his time far better than many people older that he.

      Many academics have produced literature about the evolution of new technologies impacting society. While there is no absolute solution, there is a best practice at least in process…one of democracy. As new technologies are adapted and integrated into our way of life, we must exercise our Constitutional right to shape the new policies, rules, regulations and laws that govern the use of technology. In this case, the educators cannot be a monolithic institution that issues decrees without the inputs of the student body as well as external influences such as the wide body of academic literature pertaining to this topic.

      We as a society can and should do better than this.

  6. Cristina Spiegel says:

    I am Christopher's mom, Cristina. I know standing by my son Christopher with all the ups and downs that we have weathered through and all of the growing pains we must yet go through. I am still proud of Chris and all his accomplishments and for speaking out and sharing his story. His counselors have encouraged him to put this out there, and make it known that he is not alone and this is not the end of world. It's poor judgment but its a good thing it happened early in his life and he can learn from this important lesson.

    Thank you Hessie for sharing his story!

    • hessiej says:

      Christina, you're brave for initiating this process. Chris is even braver for putting himself out there. I'm sure these types of stories will continue to impact and change how future situations are handled. You have a smart and very astute young man there! You brought him up correctly. You should be proud.

  7. Nadine Connor says:

    I agree that Christopher is quite brave to go "public" and admit his error in word choice and focus on the learning points from this unfortunate decision. I have been to baseball games, basketball, hockey and football games where the police had to intervene when fans took the game to another level. Violence is always frightening to me and the connection between sports and violence never quite made sense. Games are supposed to be fun, yes? The way things are set up, one team always wins and one loses. It is a bittersweet reality for any sports fan.
    I know Christopher as a sweet, intelligent, polite and wonderful young man. He got caught up in the spirit of team rivalry and unfortunately, in the spirit, like so many other sports fans, took it to another level. He has learned his lesson. To keep him from playing the sport that he loves is quite dramatic as a punishment when in fact no harm was committed. Even if Chris is not given permission to play sports for the rest of his time at his High School, he will rise above this and remain the wonderful young man that he is. He will honor the school's decision, he will continue to be the honor student that he is and has been, and he will move on to University in a few months, where he will undoubtedly be the "star" that he is. Good Luck, Chris. I am one of your fans!

  8. Trisha Dixon, LPN says:

    I have known Christopher since he was born. He has never displayed any violent actions, nor has he every been a disruptive student or person. His history academically and socially has always been of high regards. He has always been one of the most responsible, reliable and independent children I have encountered in my career mentoring children and teens. He has even taken responsibility for his own actions in this situation. It is my honest opinion that his school, has taken the opportunity to exploit him as an example to his peers. Which would be appropriate if Christopher was seen as a violent, troubled, disruptive or disrespectful student. He is none of these. What ever happened to suiting the punishment with the crime? This is a poor judgement call indeed. Hopefully if this happens to a student opposite of Christopher's caliber, they will receive harsher punishment to fit the student's behavior history. Accepting the punishment and not apologizing for one's actions tends to be the norm with troubled teens. Christopher did just the opposite. This gives children the wrong ethical impression on having positive morals, remorse, and a conscience for our wrong-doings in today's society. I am unsure that any one has even learnt from this situation.

    To Christopher, I believe in you and know that your intentions were misconstrued. I am a firm believer that this lesson will not disappear, but be put in your archives of "things not to do on social media." This will only make you appreciate your life and the accomplishments you have yet to encounter. I applaud you for owning up to your repertoire as an honest, respectful and diligent young man. You have a tremendous support system, along with many that believe and look up to you. So do not let this deflect you from your goals, for this time will soon pass!

  9. Joseph Wycoco says:

    I also know Chris and his family. Great kid, great family. We all make gaffes. From high school students, to celebrities, judges and politicians. No one is immune from putting their foot in their mouths from time to time, especially me.

    I've been on social media for years now, but honestly as a parent, I still wasn't quite aware of what a double-edged sword having this power to broadcast to the masses can be until reading this article and having it hit so close to home. I don't think I'm the only parent to not have thought about the potential impact an errant tweet of their kids can have. Often we have the shield of anonymity to post whatever we feel (rightly or wrongly) on public forums without impunity. In this case Chris didn't have that shield and a momentary lapse in judgment cost him dearly. I'm sure the lesson was learned.

    I hope he can appeal some of the penalties. I also hope going forward that the school administration and staff, instead of just making an example of Chris, also continue to have an ongoing dialogue with the student body about their power to help or harm with social media, the great benefits and potential consequences.

    • Joseph, everything you have said rings true. There is definitely this double-edged sword that can absolutely backfire if we're not careful. Lapses in judgement have never met such consequences as we face today.

      I hope the school continues to move forward and establish policy that provides fair guidance in judging and evaluating the circumstances, so the punishment meets the crime.

      I would hate to see kids like Chris be the example for minor incidences such as these.
      My recent post Social Justice: How Much Do You Know About the Jeans You Are Wearing?

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