Indiana fraternity hazing video shows social media's positive impact

Photos, video, and social media are bringing unprecedented transparency and awareness to a range of issues – from hazing to racism to police violence.

David Snodgress/Bloomington Herald-Times/AP
Indiana University officials said Thursday it has suspended the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity in Bloomington, Ind., following allegations of misconduct during a hazing ritual involving a male pledge in a sexual act on a woman in front of a crowd.

An Indiana University fraternity is the latest Greek organization have its charter revoked after a video circulated online Wednesday showing what appeared to be a hazing ritual that involved sexual misconduct.

The incident, which has been linked to the frat Alpha Tau Omega, once more draws attention to sexual violence on campus – a matter that has encountered increasing calls for reform from a variety of sectors, including the federal government.

It also speaks to the combined power of photos, video, and social media in bringing transparency and awareness to a range of issues – from hazing to racism to police violence – that had previously been swept under the rug, experts say.

“The common denominator is a light’s being shone on it,” says Emily Pualwan, executive director of national advocacy group HazingPrevention.org, based in LaGrange, Ga. “When you see a video, it has much more power. I think societally, we’re seeing that a lot of issues are surfacing and being dealt with because of social media.”

As smartphones’ recording capabilities improve and social media use expands, their potential as tools to promote accountability and enact change grows, as well. Footage of police officers in violent interactions with citizens, for instance, has transformed the conversation around policing, drawing greater scrutiny around officer behavior and leading to the deployment of body cameras in police departments nationwide.

A similar response is taking place in high schools and college campuses, as high-profile leaks highlighting ugly incidents drive a nationwide crackdown on violence in campus culture.

In March, members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were suspended and the chapter shut down after a clip surfaced of them singing along to a racist chant. Last month, Ohio’s Miami University shut down two fraternities, one of which reportedly banned pledges from shaving or showering and then shared photos of the unkempt students via Snapchat and text messages.

Wednesday's graphic video led the university to suspend the Bloomington, Ind., chapter of Alpha Tau Omega and the fraternity’s national leadership to revoke the chapter’s charter.

“I think what social media does is give a face” to these realities, says Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who specializes in campus conflict and violence. “When someone leaks [videos] to social media, we can’t deny it anymore as a society.”

Such power, however, comes with challenges. In the realm of law enforcement, privacy advocates have been among the most vocal in raising concerns about the adverse effects of officers wearing body cameras while on-duty.

“Officers may not want their supervisors listening to friendly chats during breaks, and urban neighborhoods where officers patrol by walking the streets would become subject to near-constant surveillance of daily activities,” as The Christian Science Monitor reported in September.

The Steubenville, Ohio, rape case – where the victim, a high school student who had gotten drunk at a party, learned she had been assaulted by seeing the photos online – was one of the first high-profile examples of social media's potential impact in both uncovering sexual crimes and spurring national outrage. In the 2012 incident, cellphone texts and photos ended up providing much of the evidence in the case, in which two football players were convicted of rape.

Privacy also can be an issue for students when it comes to such revelatory posts on social media. In that case, the photos had been widely circulated among the student body with what witnesses described as a callous disregard for the victim.

“There are potential consequences for people’s privacy,” says Kim Novak, an expert and consultant in student-focused risk management.

In addition, footage and images lack of context, she adds. “A picture is a moment in time,” and a minute-long video doesn’t tell the whole story, Ms. Novak points out.

An incomplete story can lead to either “a visceral overreaction or dismissiveness” of the incident from both officials and the public, she continues. Each reinforces the notion that it’s better to stay quiet: The first suggests that talking about a case of hazing or sexual assault can immediately lead to the most extreme consequences; the other that the issue is not important enough to merit any response, Novak says.

Still, the potential for progress through social media outweighs the problems, especially when it comes to campus violence, says Jason Meriwether, a consultant on hazing prevention and vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.

“At the end of the day, we have to take the shroud of secrecy off hazing and put it in a public space,” he wrote for tech blog Socialnomics. “You have to alienate the individuals in sororities and fraternities that want to perpetrate these practices.”

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