Recently, social media has transformed us into a generation of super-empowered individuals. We are now able to broadcast our ideas, images, videos and opinions with the click of a mouse. The size of our potential audiences and the speed with which we share information are increasing daily. We can support charitable causes, speak out against questionable business practices and launch social movements that can potentially change the world. However, it has also given us the tools to ruin lives — both our own as well as others.

The recent Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign video has become viral both on Facebook and other social media services, and people keep on reposting and responding to it. The aim is to highlight the war criminal Joseph Kony and make him famous. Joseph Kony is the chief of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel army killing, abducting and raping people in Uganda. The LRA is also famous for abducting children to make them soldiers. More than 30,000 kids already have been enrolled by force in the LRA. Invisible Children doesn’t want to stop LRA by themselves. They can’t. But the American government can help to arrest Joseph Kony. But for that, this cause needs to be famous, and people need to be aware of the situation; that’s why they smartly created this very youth- and social network-oriented campaign to increase the awareness of Joseph Kony’s evil deeds. As good as this may sound, some people have also created articles and videos citing many reasons why this movement is “bad” and why it should stop. Some of their reasons include “It’s biased and some people are profiting money out of it” and so forth.

So, if worthy humanitarian groups such as Invisible Children can be interpreted and demonized, just imagine your tweet or Facebook post that contains two or more swear words? Or the one in which you voice your “opinion” on sensitive issues. In America, people are guaranteed freedom of expression, but do we realize that we are not guaranteed freedom from consequence?

You always get a response on what you get out in the social media. Just like the two teenage girls in Gainesville, Fla., who recently made a video in which they spewed a truckload of racist comments. It took less than 10 minutes before the video went viral on YouTube and these girls’ lives changed radically — and not for the better. They have received numerous death threats and have been forced to drop out of the high school they’d been attending.

Similarly, Tommy Jordan of Albemarle, N.C., made a video after his 15-year-old daughter Hannah had apparently written a Facebook post complaining about all of the chores she has to do at home. The angry father thought he was teaching his disgruntled teenage daughter a very public lesson in respecting one’s elders by shooting her laptop on camera and then publishing the video on her Facebook page. The results: the video went viral and consequently attracted attention of child protection organizations, and now he is spending a lot of time justifying his actions to the public.

These are just the immediate repercussions on isolated issues. What consequences will stem from these actions in the future remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: it will be a long time before these people can escape the shadow cast by these regrettable and truly disastrous images they created of themselves.

Now, I understand there are some ‘professional social media ethics” that are limited to business and corporates. Whether schools and educators should take charge and raise awareness or include social media ethics in their curriculum is debatable, but it’s something that we need to think about. However, on an individual level, I know that in social media, there is no difference between private and public. Just because you can post something, it doesn’t mean you should. Because the first amendment guarantees us freedom of speech does not mean we have to recklessly use it. Future employers or even partners will look you up, and what are they going to find? Your angry tweets in which you complain about your mom. Immunity from the consequences is not guaranteed by the first amendment, whether you think you’re being “private” or “public.”  The decision is ours as individuals: to become a social media dummy, or enrich and change lives through it.

Howard Mukanda

Howard Mukanda is a Sophomore Student from Zimbabwe. He is Double Majoring in Business Management Information Systems and Global Studies. His Involvement with International Students, Peer Mentorship and International Admissions echoes his immense interest in Cultural Diversity. Howard is also intrigued by Global issues concerning Peace, Justice and Democracy.

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