Each year Harvard University, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, receives over 30,000 applications from prospective students for about 2,000 places in its first year class. Recently, ten of those successful applicants, due to graduate in 2021, had their offers of admission revoked before they set foot onto campus.  The reason?  The content of the offensive memes they had shared on a private Facebook group, which at one stage had been named “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”.

The private group was spun off the official university Facebook page, created and managed by Harvard’s admission office, for incoming students to meet each other and learn more about what to expect at the university.

Harvard’s action taken is consistent with its admissions policy, which states that Harvard has the right to withdraw an offer of admission if the prospective student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character”. The official Facebook group reminds all members of this policy.

The recent action taken by Harvard follows on the recovery of private GroupMe chats that had been deleted off the phones of various members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State University after the death of one of its first year students from an alleged hazing incident.

The messages exchanged amongst members of the fraternity and prospective ‘pledges’ were used as evidence in a case where several members were criminally charged with involuntary manslaughter.

These recent cases reiterate that what you post on private groups may not remain private. Young people, especially, should be aware that what they share on their own social media pages, or within private and public groups, can have long-lasting and career-limiting effects.

Universities and companies are now regularly conducting a social media audit on their prospective students and employees to see whether their behaviour aligns with the university’s or company’s values. If you haven’t done so already, it would be a worthwhile exercise to run a search on Google and see what results appear when you type in your name.  If you don’t like what you see, the chances are that others won’t either, and it might be time to do a digital spring clean of your online profile.