Big Brother: College Edition

Student blasts Georgia Tech for monitoring his social media accounts, including details about his travel plans and activist work on campus.

December 21, 2017
 

When Matthew Wolfsen, a student activist at Georgia Tech, asked the university for all its records on him, he got back two binders of documents.

Some of it was expected -- his high school transcript, for instance.

He also found that administrators kept tabs on his political affiliation and a trip he took to Washington in July.

“Continuing to monitor this student’s social media accounts,” Steven Norris, a social media manager for Georgia Tech, said in one email reviewed by Inside Higher Ed. The email contained details about a Facebook group Wolfsen had joined and a screenshot from his Facebook account about a meeting of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents Wolfsen planned to attend. The materials were sent to several leaders of the institution’s communications team.

Wolfsen has since widely publicized these administrators’ emails about him -- including some from President G. P. Peterson -- which were unearthed in his records requests. He declared on Facebook that Georgia Tech had spied on him using taxpayer dollars.

While experts said in interviews that colleges and universities often rely on social media channels for the pulse of campus, they were unaware of any cases in which an institution had in essence profiled a student -- raising questions about the appropriateness of Georgia Tech’s social media practices.

In a statement, Georgia Tech said it uses social media as one of several tools to engage with our community. “Our community includes current and prospective students, faculty and staff, parents, alumni and partners in government and industry.”

“Good social media engagement includes listening and often responding to those who publicly mention Georgia Tech,” the statement reads. “This is a routine practice among our peers in higher education, as well as organizations and corporations with large social media programs.”

Wolfsen first filed his request directly with Peterson a little more than a week after he had met with the president and a couple of state lawmakers in September. He says that, during the meeting, Peterson implied Wolfsen had called to campus the individuals who set fire to a police vehicle during a September protest over the death of Scout Schultz, who was shot by a Georgia Tech police officer. Georgia Tech representatives did not answer a question whether Peterson had made such a remark.

Suspicious that Peterson had badmouthed him, Wolfsen wanted his student records, information that is generally confidential under federal law, but that can be accessed by the student to whom it pertains.

Wolfsen has been a forceful and vocal student activist, involved with the Progressive Student Alliance, an unofficial campus group formed primarily to fight against a piece of controversial state legislation that would have mandated colleges report sexual assaults to law enforcement, an ill-advised practice, survivor advocates have said. House Bill 51 ultimately failed in the Georgia General Assembly.

More than a month after his request, Wolfsen dropped by the university’s legal services office to pick up his binders -- and he said he was surprised by the volume of paper in them.

Flipping through the binders in his apartment, Wolfsen saw screenshots of his personal Facebook page and a tweet he had reposted from the Progressive Student Alliance Twitter account.

Norris, the social media manager, in one August email to multiple campus administrators laid out a snapshot of Wolfsen’s social media presence. Norris noted in the email that Wolfsen is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Atlanta branch and that Wolfsen intended to attend the group’s August convention, and that Wolfsen moderates a Facebook group called “Students Against HB 51.”

Norris also described a trip that Wolfsen took to D.C. on July 31 in which Wolfsen met with the staffs of multiple lawmakers and Candice Jackson, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

All this information was pulled from public posts. The university did not answer questions about how much time Norris spends reviewing students’ social media, but said in its statement, “Monitoring of all Georgia Tech mentions in media and social media platforms represents a small part of the media relations team’s responsibilities.” Representatives did not answer specific questions posed by a reporter, including whether this type of tracking of students was a common practice.

According to the statement, Georgia Tech “noticed” posts Wolfsen shared in which he either tagged or mentioned the institution.

Email regarding Matthew Wolfsen. Text: “Continuing to monitor this account for any activity related to USG/Georgia Tech. Some details about this Twitter user that may be of note: Wolfsen is a registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America group and is attending their national convention in August as an elected representative from Atlanta. He is one of the moderators of the FB Group “Students Against House Bill 51” (includes link to the group). Wolfsen traveled with a small contingent of students to Washington DC on July 31 to speak with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ staff [sic] regarding HB 51. In a Facebook post he writes: ‘We had brought up the nonsense that’s happening in Georgia, particularly with HB51, but also with the sexual misconduct policy that the Board of Regents is voting on during the August 8th meeting. They all said that they would research a way to solve the issues presented, and asked for us to keep in contact with them as things further develop in Georgia.”

“He was never reprimanded or disciplined for anything he posted on social media,” the statement reads. “Georgia Tech supports and encourages students to be engaged in their community. This includes sharing their opinion on social media and in person on campus.”

Emails also show that administrators looked at the activities of the Progressive Student Alliance. Norris forwarded to administrators a photo of a sign the group had hung around campus detailing its demands following Schultz’s death -- (officials found suicide notes in Schultz’s room hinting that the 21-year-old planned to commit suicide by cop).

In another email, Lynn M. Durham, assistant vice president and chief of staff in the Office of the President, described the Progressive Student Alliance’s “tactics” as “troublesome.”

“In my opinion, they want publicity more than anything else,” Durham wrote. “I do think they truly care and are trying to make Georgia Tech better (or however they believe Georgia Tech can be better) but they rarely have correct facts and they very quickly resort to protest and animosity instead of conversation.”

While not explicitly forbidden, compiling student information the way Georgia Tech did could lead to a chilling of free speech, said Adam B. Steinbaugh, a senior program officer and investigative reporter at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog group.

“If you learn that administrators at your university are watching for updates on your social media -- even if it’s public -- you might think twice about what you say,” Steinbaugh said. He commended Wolfsen for “shining some sunlight” on what Georgia Tech was doing.

Some of Wolfsen’s peers intend to or have already asked for their records -- among them is Naiki Kaffezakis, a fifth-year student who largely started campus activist work after Schultz’s death. She put in her request Tuesday.

Kaffezakis was concerned when Wolfsen shared with her the findings of his records request. She said she had personally helped with the legal defense of some students who were arrested during the September protest in which the police car was burned. She said she wanted to know what “enemies” she had made in the administration, especially since she’s entering graduate school at Georgia Tech and is mulling remaining for her doctorate.

“I definitely have concerns if this is the way they’re treating students to get the best for their image,” Kaffezakis said.

Institutions generally watch social media for three purposes, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education -- for customer service, such as addressing student grievances; health and safety concerns among campus constituents (a mental health crisis); or to help law enforcement in the case of a potential violent event or protest.

Kruger declined to weigh in about whether Georgia Tech had acted improperly.

“It’s an imperfect science,” he said of social media monitoring. “I think campuses, most campuses, don’t have a bevy of staff members to pore through social media. If institutions are mentioned or hashtagged or that kind of thing, it’s easier, but I’ve never heard of institutions that are profiling individual students.”

Public opinion of the university’s actions have been split online.

On the Georgia Tech Reddit page (another platform the university checks), users tended to side with the university, believing that Wolfsen was deliberately trying to be difficult or administrators weren’t out of bounds in taking note of public posts.

“I’m ambivalent to whether this should actually be controversial,” one wrote. “It doesn’t seem out of bounds for the school to monitor social media activity that could lead to potential PR headaches.”

Ian Bogost, Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and professor of interactive computing at Georgia Tech, who also has a significant Twitter presence, disagreed. He posted an article by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the story, and said, “shameful, astounding behavior from my employer.”

 

Wolfsen doesn’t yet know what he’ll do. He’s spoken with a lawyer but hasn’t made any decisions on whether he’ll pursue legal action. He hasn’t sought any more records since he received the binders late November.

“I would say the big thing I want to see is just some policy,” Wolfsen said. “Why is this necessary, why did they feel the need to do that to that extent? I just would like some sort of guideline as to what is worth monitoring and not worth monitoring, and then at the end of the day, see things changed for the better.”

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