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There are any number of reasons why some choose to use social media in their classrooms. From folks who use technology in classes simply because those technologies exist to the admirable goal of increasing student engagement, to every other reason in between, many educators have decided to make social media use a part of their classrooms. But there are important internal and external issues of ethics surrounding the use of social media in the classroom that faculty must consider. I talk more about these in a book chapter published in Mediated Critical Communication Pedagogy, but here I want to note a few concerns that I think are important for all educators to consider as I continue seeing teachers at all levels talk about the use of social media in classrooms.

Internal Issues of Ethics

The first concern in this category is perceived anonymity and the impact that may have on student judgment. Research on social media is very clear about the fact that the missing social context cues we tend to have in face-to-face communication can encourage more personal disclosures alongside higher levels of aggression. This means that students may engage with classmates and others online in negative and non-productive ways. By virtue of being part of classwork, the online communication of students cannot be anonymous to faculty members, thus faculty must be prepared to manage possible online conflict between two students who may feel emboldened to say things online that they would not say to a classmate face-to-face. In addition, research shows that internet trolls can have tendencies towards sadism and other anti-social behaviors. I don’t want to inadvertently introduce any of my students to those people for a lot of reasons, but especially because engagement with a troll puts a different kind of burden on students who may or may not be equipped to effectively manage such conflict and communication, especially that which personally attacks them. Thus, faculty choosing to use those tools in the classroom have an affirmative obligation to train students in effective online communication, as well as in strategies for the management of online conflict. Failure to do so could cause students to post things they later regret and/or cause students unintended stress associated with online aggressions, bullying, and plain abuse.

The second concern under this category is linked to misconceptions of the First Amendment. Misconceptions of what the First Amendment protects can encourage students to believe that their online speech is protected when it is not because the First Amendment protects us against governmental infringement on our speech, not against personal or corporate limits on our speech. In addition, school and university speech codes exist and are enforced, thus faculty must be prepared to teach students about not only their free speech rights, but also the responsibilities of free speech as defined by their school’s speech codes.

External Issues of Ethics

Given the risks associated with damaging our interpersonal relations via social media, what consequences for student relationships outside their immediate interpersonal ones should we consider as faculty? First, we have to remember that future employers and/or internship supervisors may use data from social media when considering our students for positions. You need only go back to the story of Justine Sacco, who lost not only her job, but also her career, to understand how damaging one social media mistake can be. This example is undoubtedly extreme, but the odds that anything really negative could happen to my students are simply too high for me as a professor who regularly deals with issues of race, sex, sexuality, gender, class, and the like. One mindless or poorly-worded tweet that is misconstrued by the audience can do untold damage to a student’s life and career aspirations. There is no amount of “student engagement” or “finding voice” that, for me, makes the chances of student embarrassment and even temporary ruin worth the risk.

Next, when students make mistakes in online communication, there is a common belief that one can just “delete” that mistake, but that is simply not true. Students can apologize, take back, and try to mitigate the consequences of their communication, but communication is irreversible and while students may be able to mitigate the way that others who’ve read their posts view their comments, they can never be completely deleted nor can the impressions of themselves they form for others with their online communication. Moreover, students need to understand that online communication is never really deleted. Others can take screen captures of a student’s communication and save or share it. In addition, data storage has become so cheap that groups and companies are attempting to store everything that has been shared online. Is it likely that someone will dig into the cache files of the internet and unearth a post from two years prior that could hurt the reputation of the student that posted it? Probably not. Is it possible? Absolutely. Thus while faculty may communicate to students that they should assume that anything they post online is essentially the same as posting it on a public billboard, faculty must also make sure students understand that nothing is ever truly deleted from the internet and to consider even more carefully before they post.

Another external concern is privacy and the micro and macro data collection that takes place on social media sites. Simply requiring a student to sign up for a social media account means that you have forced them to position themselves on “the grid” when perhaps they don’t want to be. Even if students already have accounts and don’t mind being on the grid, faculty should think hard about whether or not we’re okay with handing our students, their data, and their “user-generated content” over to for-profit corporations serving a multitude of marketers worldwide.

A final external concern deals with the utility of social media platforms when dealing with complex questions or issues. Thinking broadly, how can 280 characters effectively reflect the context surrounding what’s being communicated in those 280 characters? How can one 280 tweet about the Black Lives Matter movement account for the multitude of contexts with which people layer the issue of police brutality? Can it be done? Maybe. Is it done well the majority of the time? Probably not. Does an attempt to engage students in a discussion of Black Lives Matter via Twitter really illuminate this incredibly complex and important movement? Or does it, instead, allow for the further silo-ing of opinions and information on social media? Does it do some of both? How would we know? What do we have to choose to leave out? What gets left out in the mind of the reader that we intended to include? Whether I am teaching public speaking, interpersonal communication, gender and communication, conflict management, the rhetoric of American horror films, political communication, social movements, women’s public address, or issues in freedom of expression, context doesn’t just matter, it is essential to comprehending all we try to understand about course content. Thus, I am hard-pressed to grant 280 characters the assumption that something meaningful about communication’s context will be conveyed in a way that enlightens rather than obfuscates the important concepts I want my students to interrogate.

I Get the Idea But I Just Don’t Think the Benefits Outweigh the Costs and Risks

We should appreciate and encourage faculty who do not see the classroom as a place for the mere transmission of information, but rather, who work toward engaging students in the content. But we should also be mindful of how social media can damage our students, their learning, their reputations, and their relationships. Along with my desire to challenge students to think about and engage with course content comes the responsibility of protecting them as best as I can as they engage that very thorny proposition and its processes. Anyanwu warns that a nation that, “empowers its citizens with the tools of technology but fails to train them to use those tools stands the risk of being used either by the tools or by those able to use the tools, who them marginalize the rest of society” (2003. Myth and realities of new media technology: Virtual classroom education premise. Television and New Media, 4.4, p.391). I think we would be very wise to heed this warning.

I am not arguing that there is not a place in the world for social media or that social media isn’t an effective means of igniting change. It can, of course, be a very powerful tool for change and the #MeToo movement is a good example of that possibility. But these tools have limits in terms of democratization and they have significant drawbacks in terms of unintended consequences, especially for young people who are still learning about the world and how to engage it effectively. And when faculty fail to recognize and consider the limits and drawbacks, we may work against the very important purposes we contend are at the heart of our pedagogy. The risk of our students being used by these tools or having others use those tools to marginalize them is significant, in my view. The possible costs for my students (and me as I bear some responsibility for what happens to them in the course of my class) are greater than any rewards I can imagine. So, I will teach students how social media platforms function, as well as teaching them how they are used in everything from politics to their own job searches after graduation, but I will not require that they engage these tools as part of my course.