Bella Rios was a 2018-2019 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
A student posts a socially controversial post on Facebook about a bulletin board in the residence hall. The bulletin board is titled, “What is Whiteness?” It includes graphics about whiteness as a social construct and the ways in which people inadvertently benefit from this identity. The aim of the board is to educate students about diversity, social justice, and civic engagement.
The student, however, denounces the board as propaganda, alleging that in permitting the board, the university discriminates against White students. On Facebook, he tags prominent conservative figures, including political journalist Ben Shapiro (who hosts a television show and frequently makes appearances on Fox News) and Charlie Kirk (founder of Turning Point USA), which draws greater attention to the situation. Shapiro has 2.1 million followers on social media. Kirk has 1.05 million followers on social media.
Shortly after posting and tagging, the student receives online backlash from trolls and bullies. By posting on Facebook, he intended to shed light on what he perceived as an issue – namely, excessive liberalism on campus. He did not anticipate nor wish for notoriety for his views. Regretting his decision to post publicly, he deletes the original post.
Student journalist Andres interviews the student on his motives for publicizing and criticizing the bulletin board. The student speaks to Andres but asks for his name to be omitted from the article. He does not want to face further social ostracization for his stance. He believes that people will make assumptions about his character and that progressive students will condemn him.
Andres believes that confidentiality must be reserved for vulnerable sources in need of special protection from the newspaper. Such sources include those with less power and resources who will face severe consequences, such as the threat of deportation or physical harm, if their names are published.
In this situation, the student decided to post his contentious views publicly and now is experiencing the repercussions of his choice. Vulnerable sources, on the contrary, face harm if their names are published due to conditions they did not choose.
Andres is also concerned that by redacting the student’s name, people might chastise the newspaper for providing the student with a platform for controversial views without being held accountable for these ideas. If the article publishes his name, it would be the only digital and printed source to link him to his original post.
Andres also considers whether the student retains a reasonable expectation of privacy as he posted publicly. The student tagged famous public figures, but now admits to regretting his decision. Despite his misgivings, Andres questions whether the student should continue to face the consequences of the original post, which includes social backlash.
1) Should Andres grant this student confidentiality?
2) What are the reasonable expectations of privacy for a student posting publicly on social media?
3) What are the potential consequences of protecting the source’s identity under these circumstances?
4) What factors should influence a journalist’s decision to disclose a source’s name?