Student Board Member: Social Media as an Assault Tool
BY HANA O'LOONEY/School Administrator, November 2022

Hana O’Looney, student member of the school board in Montgomery County, Md., disactivated her Twitter account temporarily following social media attacks against her. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, ROCKVILLE, MD.
It was the day after a school board meeting this past February when my cellphone suddenly started buzzing uncontrollably with notifications. A few tweets and mentions after a meeting are always expected, but this time, the number and intensity of the comments were different.

The elected student member of my local board of education, I opened my Twitter home page to find the culprit: a 15-second video of me acting as the only member of the board expressing support for keeping our mask mandate to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the Montgomery County Public Schools, located just outside Washington, D.C.

Scrolling through the comments and retweets of the video, I expected to find some upset parents and ideologically opposed community members. Much to my horror, however, I found a deluge of comments from outsiders across the country not just disagreeing with my — albeit not the best-worded — statement but using our difference of opinion on policy as an excuse to attack my identities, make juvenile jokes about my name, insult my appearance or encourage self-harm.

“This is why we shouldn’t elect Asian-Americans to office. They live in fear.”

“Imagine being married to her. [Skull Emoji] [Gun Emoji] ”

“The nameplate is right. That belongs in the Looney bin.”

Inescapable Trolling

A few comments turned into thousands, and this brief video clip soon made its way onto national networks and conservative newspapers, further encouraging malicious messages — this time not just on Twitter, but also on my other social media platforms, my e-mail, my website and even postal mail. The trolling was inescapable. Everywhere I turned, people were spewing horrid insults behind fake user names and unidentifiable profile pictures.

Eventually, I ended up completely logging off from social media for a few days and temporarily suspending my Twitter account so I couldn’t be messaged or tagged by others. It be-came difficult to focus on my responsibilities for the board or my schoolwork, as I couldn’t shake the idea that no matter what positive contributions I made to my community through my service, this hateful record of prejudiced insults would be my legacy on the web.

Especially in my generation for whom social media can define our sense of self and feeling of worth, having an online presence vandalized by a few malicious strokes of strangers’ thumbs was devastating. Luckily for me, the original tweet was taken down due to Twitter’s policies on harassment and the comments ended up subsiding in about five days, which was about as relieving as it was alarming to think of how the mob that overtook my pages had likely already found a new target.

Civil Discourse

Leveraging social media to promote public discourse on local education policy has been a great point of pride for me throughout my one-year term on the board of education. I was able to engage thousands of students in debates about school issues through polls on Instagram stories and reach hundreds of thousands of county residents through single TikTok videos with location hashtags.

As one of a few school districts in the nation with an elected student member on our school board with full voting rights, Montgomery County enabled my engagement on social media to increase transparency in the democratic decision-making process and directly involve students in policymaking, thus laying a foundation for lifelong civic engagement in new generations.

But just as easily, this double-edged sword can bring out the worst malice in people and dismantle society’s ability to have productive discourse. So easy is it to hide behind a fake profile while dehumanizing those you engage with online, disagreeing with their personhood instead of their ideas. 

School district leaders have an important responsibility to ensure schools not only teach youth about respectful use of social media, including its permanent consequences, but also to model that behavior, thinking critically about how we can promote constructive civil discourse.

Engage Widely

My unsettling experience leads me to offer three suggestions for school systems that seek to engage with their community through social media.

»Offer opportunities for direct engagement but monitor front-facing comments. The benefit of social media is that it allows for easily accessible, immediate two-way engagement with communities you serve. It would be a mistake to only use social media accounts to share information with your community and not equally use them as an opportunity to gather feedback.

Promoting such public discourse, however, also involves creating space for opinions you may disagree with and occasionally even offensive or hateful comments. Ensure someone is responsible for always monitoring online engagement, with the capacity to take down or hide comments that target individuals (especially students) or that are offensive.

»Think critically about who social media is including and excluding from the conversation. Social media is a great tool to bring in new voices for discussions about educational policy, especially for youth who often don’t know how to navigate school system bureaucracies and the traditional networks your district already may have for public comment.

But depending on your platform and the established following of the forum you are using, engagement with the public through social media also can be a dangerous echo chamber that only reinforces the loudest, most active online voices. Examine your school media accounts’ analytics about followers and take note of overly engaged groups that could mischaracterize any data you collect.

»Uplift positive stories. One of the heaviest days of engagement I received on my own social media accounts was when I took my followers on a behind-the-scenes tour of our school district’s food production and distribution services. “This is so cool!” and “I’d never really thought about how our cafeteria food is made” were just some of hundreds of positive comments I received.

Students, families and staff will want to follow your district’s social media accounts if they are a useful, positive space to interact with. Find ways to celebrate individual schools’ successes, and use your social media account as a fun tool for your community to learn more about your operations.

HANA O’LOONEY, who served as the student member of the board of education in Montgomery County, Md., in 2021-22, is a freshman at Harvard University. Twitter: @hanaolooney