3 things media students can learn from Harley Barber’s racist tirades

My Wednesday lecture to my media-writing class about social media and my Thursday look at the media law conveniently dovetailed with a horrific story out of the University of Alabama. A 19-year-old student named Harley Barber posted two videos on Instagram in which she repeatedly used vile, racist language.

(I’m linking to the Washington Post and the AL.com stories, but not the videos themselves, as they are definitely NSFW. If you decide to watch them, you might want to consider headphones and a crash helmet.)

Barber has been kicked out of her sorority (which she states on one of the videos is the most important thing in her life) and the university itself. Alpha Phi sorority and the university’s president issued statement condemning Barber’s racist tirades. Barber’s estranged mother spoke out against her daughter in the media and Barber herself has moved back to New Jersey and gone publicly quiet about the situation.

What happens next is unclear, but if the case of Justine Sacco, the PR practitioner who once tweeted about going to Africa and “hope I don’t get AIDS” is any indication, Barber may never recover.

Even if common sense and normal human decency has you thinking nothing Barber did could ever impact you, consider these three takeaways from this situation that will help you as a journalist:

  1. When you are on social media, you are playing with live ammo: I asked the students in my class how many people had a Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat account. All of them had at least one, and many had all three and more. I then said, “Understand this: You are all publishers and that comes with some huge risks.” I think it was the first time that many of them understood that social media provided them with a public presence that could go viral in a ridiculously fast time period. I could see at least a few of them mentally going back through their social media usage, wondering if they’d ever said something they might regret or posted an image the might embarrass them.
    Social media makes it extremely easy for people to post, share and comment on things in a way that traditional media outlets like TV stations and newspapers never could. That said, there also isn’t as much vetting that goes into tweets, posts and comments as there is in those other outlets. When you reach for your phone or a computer to hit social media, you’re locked and loaded and the safety is off. Don’t let a long line at the store, a bad break up or some other irritant drive you to rant on social media. The anger is momentary but the stupid could follow you forever.
  2. Free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free speech: The question of “Doesn’t the First Amendment allow her to say whatever she wants, no matter how vile?” came up in various conversations I had this week. The answer is yes, but that’s not the point.
    People confuse the idea of free speech as it’s explained in the First Amendment with consequence-free speech, as in you can do whatever you want and nothing bad will ever happen to you. The amendment notes that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” which courts have now taken to mean all forms of government shall not prevent people from opening their mouths and saying what they feel. (Obviously, that’s a little simplistic, as fighting words, time-place-manner restrictions as well as other court rulings have limited this.) That said, the First Amendment doesn’t mean you won’t suffer for your statements.
    Private organizations, such as the sorority, are allowed to impose rules and restrictions on what people say or what happens when they say something awful. Some educational institutions, both public and private, have “codes of conduct” that will place restrictions on some forms of speech or outline consequences for particularly vile speech.
    Even if those institutions didn’t or couldn’t levy consequences against someone like Barber for her language, there is always the court of public opinion ready to drop a hammer on people when they behave in a way seen as reprehensible. Before she went off the grid, Barber said she was receiving negative phone calls and other messages from people displeased in her choice of words, to put it mildly. As several members of the hivemind debated if the school could legally kick her out, I noted that the school might be doing Barber a favor in expelling her. It’s hard to imagine being Public Enemy Number One on a campus that size and having to go back to class like nothing happened.
    In short, every action has consequences and something like this can have incalculable ones.
  3. You are never as safe as you think you are: One of the things that came up in the Harley Barber saga was the fact she posted these videos on her “finsta,” or fake Instagram account. According to various sources, (read: a newspaper article and students I know who know way more about this stuff than I do) these “finsta” accounts are where people feel free to be who they are without ramifications. It’s like the Instagram account associated with you is who you are when you meet your date’s parents and the “finsta” is the party freak you become later that night.
    “Security features” of this kind can really lull people into a false sense of security and an erroneous belief that they have some level of privacy on this wonderful “information superhighway.” No matter how you set your Facebook privacy settings or how you lock down your Twitter account or how many “finsta” personas you have, someone can find you. Somebody out there knows you or will share it with someone who might not think your “Kanye Frat Party” isn’t that funny or that your 79-year-old house mother chanting the N-word in a video isn’t OK. You are never as safe as you think you are when it comes to these things.

Each time you use social media, you put yourself at legal, ethical and social risk, so make sure you are putting the requisite amount of thought into it. If you don’t, you never know what might happen.


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