The line between a personal prejudice and an act of public bigotry has become even more difficult to discern in the age of social media. Earlier this month, Harvard University decided to revoke the admission of 10 incoming students for allegedly offensive Facebook posts against minorities, the Holocaust and victims of sexual assault. Much of the debate following the decision has centred around the right to free speech, and the institution’s right to exclude those it feels can poison its diverse atmosphere. But Harvard’s decision also throws up another ethical dilemma.
It is very improbable that Harvard, or any other elite (and elitist) institution of its size and history, has not had members with privately held prejudices. Also, would the students whose admission was cancelled say the things they did in an admission essay or interview? The punitive action against the students hinges on two factors: That they held bigoted beliefs and they expressed them publicly. However, the degree to which social media platforms are “public” is far from clear. A personal Facebook account is, in its barest form, a virtual simulation of your private social network. Would Harvard rescind students’ admission based on an off-colour statement made at a party? Social media has evolved since its inception, as have its users. Rather than a mere tool to stay connected they have become a display and extension of the people that use them, and the algorithms used by Facebook, for example, amplify the message.
Proto-cyborg personalities that the internet has moulded, the part of ourselves we put out on a platform like Facebook, is neither wholly public nor wholly private. There has already been a political and ethical cost to this state of limbo — fake news travels through “personal” accounts, even influencing election results. The debate emanating out of Harvard will continue as the delineation between the public and private shifts and evolves.