American fraternities can’t hide their ugly secrets from social media

Secrets secrets are no fun…
Secrets secrets are no fun…
Image: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford
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Every few days over the past several weeks has brought a new scandal among American college fraternities, featuring a shocking level of misogyny or racism or both. So many fraternities have been shut down in recent weeks that the Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy round up of the incidents, and social media has played prominently in a smattering of these cases.

That’s put fraternity chapters, which have built their legacies on clannish secrecy, in the awkward position of being held to account for the unscrupulous musings of their members, whose young brains aren’t wired to be consequence-oriented on social media. The legal implications are escalating for universities, fraternities and the students themselves, as investigators and prosecutors find more ways to mine social media and employ it in court. Here’s a rundown of incidents inspired or outed by social media that have exposed the darker aspects of fraternity life:

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, University of Oklahoma

On March 8, a black student group shared a video on Twitter, showing fraternity members on a private bus singing a song that used disparaging language toward African-Americans and referenced lynching, with the lyrics, “There will never be a [expletive] SAE.” According to the Washington Post, that’s when the video started spreading online. The student group tagged the university president in the tweet. That day, the video was also posted anonymously to YouTube.

Within an hour, Boren responded.

By the next day, the university had closed down the fraternity chapter and ordered students to vacate the house.

The student group could have taken the video directly to campus authorities. Releasing it on Twitter instead amplified the outrage that resulted in swift action.

Kappa Sigma fraternity, University of Maryland

University of Maryland president Wallace Loh turned to Twitter on Mar. 13 after a racist, sexist email allegedly sent by a Kappa Sigma fraternity member last year went viral. Soon after a screenshot of the alleged email began gaining traction on Facebook and Twitter, the university put out an official statement saying it was investigating the matter.  The legal ramifications of the email are still debatable—some argue that it falls under free speech protection—which can restrict a university’s actions against the fraternity or the individuals. Nevertheless, Loh used his official Twitter account to speak his mind about the incident, expressing his personal dismay.

Kappa Delta Rho, Pennsylvania State University

Pennsylvania State University’s Kappa Delta Rho fraternity is being investigated for allegedly setting up a private, 144-person Facebook page that included photos of naked women asleep or passed out. The university suspended the chapter, after a fraternity member printed out paper copies of the page and showed police what was happening in January according to the New York Times (paywall). The school announced the launch of a task force to review Greek system misconduct on campus.

Sigma Chi, Westminster College

The national Sigma Chi organization conducted an investigation into the Westminster College chapter in Missouri earlier this year, and punished members for hazing and other violations in January. The fraternity was then suspended indefinitely and a college investigation launched after a member showed administrators screenshots of a private fraternity Facebook page with “offensive material,” university spokesman Rob Crouse tells Quartz.