Anonymity of social media increases discrimination


Keyboards, either a weapon or tool

Social media has given people an alternative way to attack others using hateful words without even leaving their homes.

Recently, a study conducted at Humboldt State University in California suggested that Brookings residents are using these words in hateful social media posts.

“A word is just a word until you know someone who’s black, someone who’s gay, someone who’s transgender,” said Chris Hartzler, a fifth year senior hospitality management major from Brewster, Minnesota. “Then your brain constructs an image of these people and you realize they’re people, too.”

Hartzler is part of the Gay Straight Alliance, which has been the target of negative social media. Students who identify as being members of the LGBT+ community have also been subjected to the negative effects of social media.

Doug Wermedal, interim vice president for student affairs, has seen discrimination change vastly in his time at South Dakota State University.

 “The Internet really provides a bigger opportunity to spread derogatory comments on social media and increase the reach of the comments,” Wermedal said. “In the old days, you would have to hand out pamphlets or stand on a soapbox to spread your comments.”

Hartzler said criticism on Facebook isn’t common because it’s not anonymous. However, “people on anonymous sites can say anything without having to stand behind their comments.”

Hartzler said negative comments posted on the anonymous mobile app, Yik Yak, are almost immediately downvoted so that it doesn’t stay up as long.

“It’s really hard to do anything about the posts when you have no demographics about the person saying stuff other than the fact that they’re jerks,” Hartzler said.

Senior Semehar Ghebrekidan agreed.

“It’s frustrating to me when ignorance is passed through a keyboard, and you have no idea who’s on the other end,” she said. “Anonymous social media basically leads to sexism, homophobia or racism, and you can’t check them if they say something crazy.”

Ghebrekidan said she has been the victim of several death threats through social media as well as the target of discrimination through anonymous social media.

“Most of the time the discrimination has been passive and it’s just outright wrong,” Ghebrekidan said.

Wermedal said Student Affairs deals with about half a dozen discrimination cases a year dealing with social media that are part of formal complaints.

“If it impacts any student, in my mind, it’s a big deal because it can change their experience at SDSU,” Wermedal said.

Consequences for these infractions range from letters of no contact to the victim, moving residence halls, changing courses or even expulsion in some cases, Wermedal said.

 “The punishment depends on the severity of behaviors,” Wermedal said. “Our goal is for the punishment to be educational and to change that person’s behaviors.”

Wermedal added investigating anonymous reports is difficult, but to do so, they will enlist the help of the Information Technology Department and law enforcement officers.

“If the opportunity to spread negative comments has grown, the reverse is also true,” Wermedal said. “We can spread anti-derogatory comments just as fast. Our ability to educate and move quickly is enhanced.”

 Hartzler and Ghebrekidan both have experience in sharing their backgrounds and opinions on social media.

“If I see something negative on social media and I feel the person is open to it, I’ll try to comment on things and see if they seem open to the educational opportunity,” Ghebrekidan said.

Hartzler has been able to find a more supportive community on social media sites he uses.

“Social media can allow people to be horribly mean, but it can allow people to be themselves,” Hartzler said. “I’ve found lots of strong, positive role models who can help with safety, friendships and information.”

 Hartzler hopes to be a part of a solution to make SDSU a more open environment. Throughout this summer, he will be working to get SDSU on the Campus Pride Index, which is an online system of colleges that are LGBT+ friendly.

The process will include finding information on gender inclusivity clauses, finding out if a student can change their name and gender without facing discrimination and if SDSU provides paperwork that is inclusive, among other things.

“I stayed at SDSU despite some of the negative things that have happened,” Hartzler said, “but I want to be a part of the change to make this campus better.”