What Harvard’s rescinded memers mean for internet privacy

The internet isn’t safe anymore

We’ve seen the memes, the shock and the outrage of this story: 10 incoming Harvard freshmen have had their offers rescinded for sharing outrageous memes on a private group chat. Harvard, as a private, selective institution, had every right to deny admission to them. But for millions of internet users like myself, this carries an uncomfortably resonant message: the world is no longer private.

The internet, one of our main channels of communication, has evolved into an incredibly complex and yet bite-sized way to share our thoughts and ideas. Like speaking aloud, we can communicate whatever we want, and people cannot persecute us legally. And, like with speech, I believe there should be lighter consequences (like rescinding) for those sharing statements that are racist, sexist, and so on.

The problem, I believe, is that the internet puts our speech under constant surveillance. The students may have recruited their “General Fuckups” from the Harvard accepted students’ page, but they started their own, separate conversations on Messenger and other applications. If this hadn’t happened over the internet, it would have gone very differently; a large mixer of prefrosh would have split into smaller groups, and one of them would have held an incredibly obscene conversation. Unless they were reported by eavesdroppers, there would be no consequences at all.

So, regardless of what the memers said, they were vulnerable to punishment because they spoke through the internet.

Edited screenshots of the memes posted

To punish people for what they communicate is not unfair, but implies that Harvard draws a hard line at politically incorrect speech. However, we still host a thriving culture of racism, sexism, and classism. Our administration is still struggling to integrate women into age-old final clubs, there are no concentrations dedicated to Latinx or Muslim studies, and a transition program for low-income students was recently rejected without “clear rationale.” At parties, practices, and study sessions alike, people can be (and often are) stereotyped, mocked, and made into memes. The fact that these actions are spoken – or perhaps more dangerously, unspoken – makes them free of consequence.

The internet is abused in the same way, but, as we can see from Harvard’s rescinded memers, this age of free, uncensored internet communication is coming to an end. In this critical moment in the history of internet privacy, we need to acknowledge that the internet can no longer anonymize discrimination, black humor, and triggering content. Anything we do can be traced, copied, and shared with third parties. So be careful, my friends, and don’t make the same mistake our memers did.