Wits University is taking a stricter approach to students and staff “abusive” behaviour on social media.

WITS UNIVERSITY Alumni Relations hosted a talk to engage students, alumni and others on the legal, disciplinary and reputational risks of social media on Wednesday, July 26, 2017.

Guest speaker, social media expert and lawyer Emma Sadleir reiterated Wits’ stance that, due to increasing second-hand institutional reputational liability, any student and staff member engaging with social media in an abusive manner would be subject to disciplinary action.

In the digital age where university members use various social media platforms to research, socialise and network, social media has become a valuable tool for higher education institutions. They use these platforms to attract the best students and staff to their institutions as well as to communicate with the university community and the general public.

Wits University’s Vice- Chancellor, Adam Habib’s June 21, 2017 communique stated that the university will no longer put up with intolerant behaviour. We can disagree, but in a respectful manner that respects each other’s right to disagree. We don’t do so because it is law or the rule, but because we believe in a common humanity. How we behave must speak to our tradition of Ubuntu. I worry that social media has become a place for extreme views and [alienate] other people. We must create a conversation [on social media] in a way that is productive,” he said.

Sadleir’s social media lecture highlighted institutions reputational risk management, which will see institutions like that of higher education hold people more accountable for their social media behaviour. She said that you cannot bite the hand that feeds you and this is why institutions are taking their reputational risk seriously. Students and staff are no longer only being monitored during office hours but also monitored in their personal lives. “The best interest of the [university] sometimes outweighs the rights to freedom of expression,” says Sadleir. The social media expert emphasised that people must monitor what they put on their social media. “Don’t think you’re anonymous online, that is a very dangerous thought,” said Sadleir.

Third year BA Law student Kopano Gonyane said that talks like Sadleir’s highlight the issue of many people not being fully aware that they can be held liable for any information they put on their social media. “You can express your opinion, just as long as you don’t impede on any else’s rights. When you are expressing yourself, it doesn’t mean you have to off end someone else. Respect someone else’s right to have a different view,” said the student.

Gonyane said, Wits needs to look into providing clear guidance for how to use — and how not to use — social media in the course of being a member of the Wits community. “Everyone should know this [rules of social engagement],” he says. Gonyane added that the Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU) should include guidelines on social media engagement when they are doing their career development sessions and also somewhere in the various curriculum.