Most people would be shocked to see a poster on a university campus that said: "Every Asian that walks past us in the oval wants to eat our dog." But although this statement wasn't plastered across a campus wall, it was tweeted.
Now, anonymous bloggers are broadcasting offensive posts from students at two US universities, Ohio State University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, to remind others that tweeting hateful things is no better than saying hateful things and that the web is not a private place. The blogs are meant to be a wake-up call to students, but they are also a startling look into the stereotypes that persist on campus.
The OSU Haters blog states simply: "Ohio State is no place for hate!" The blog is a collection of tweets and posts from Ohio State students that mock or degrade different groups on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The posters' names (from their Twitter pages) are clearly visible. UNL Haters, inspired by OSU haters, says: "Not everyone featured are haters, many are simply ignorant."
The creators of the sites at both universities have insisted on remaining anonymous, and did not respond to Inside Higher Ed's request for comment. Students whose tweets were posted on the sites also did not respond to requests for comment.
The blogs have brought to light the surprising willingness of students to mock and make negative comments about various groups, especially Asian students, who have notoriously been the subject of cruel jokes and racist comments on campuses in recent years. The sites have also inspired action by students and discussion among administrators.
"It's been really exciting to see the student engagement around this," said Rebecca Nelson, senior special assistant to the vice-president of student life at Ohio State and the convener of the Bias Assessment Response Team (BART). BART monitors the campus climate and makes recommendations about how to provide support for different groups on campus. It also monitors and responds to complaints of hateful actions or speech.
So far, students at Ohio State have organised a number of forums and town hall meetings, prompted by the Haters blog, to discuss how to improve the campus climate. Ms Nelson said most of the forums have been attended by at least 100 people, who are intent on discussing the problems the Haters blog reveals and talking about ways to be more inclusive.
The first town hall meeting, held to directly address the Haters blog, brought out a fair number of critics, according Kimberly McKee, a graduate student and the president of the Graduate Pan Asian Caucus. Most of the criticism focused on the anonymity of the blog's creators, but Ms McKee said she thinks that whether students agree with the way the blog is run, it does bring to light an important problem.
"The account highlights an existing, systemic issue," Ms McKee said. "The Tumblr sparked a university-wide conversation regarding the marginalisation and invisibility students experience on a daily basis."
Danielle Olden, a graduate student and the president of the university's Diversity and Identity Studies Collective (DISCO) graduate caucus, said hate speech on campus has always existed, but now everyone - students and administrators - is more aware of it.
"It seems that a lot of students have taken notice and have said that they were not aware such blatant prejudice existed on campus," said Ms Olden.
DISCO, an interdisciplinary group, regularly sponsors diversity-related programming, and plans to put on two major forums focused on the issues raised by the Haters blog.
Amid all the forums and discussions, there have been calls for the university to address the hateful online speech, and even to punish the people engaging in it. What action it could take, however, is a complicated question.
Colleges are no strangers to the thorny world of online speech. Sites like JuicyCampus or CollegeACB, where students could post anonymous comments about anything - or anyone - they want, sparked plenty of controversy and demands for legal action. But much online speech, just like other speech, is protected by the First Amendment.
"What's so difficult with the social media is that it rarely rises to the level of something you can prosecute," Ms Nelson said.
Legal experts emphasised that the core issues, derogatory or hateful statements, are not new problems on college campuses; it is simply that the medium has changed. "Just about any kind of deplorable speech can take place in the real world or in the cyber world," said Peter Lake, a law professor at Stetson University and the director of the Center for Excellence on Higher Education Law and Policy. "In many ways it isn't really all that different in terms of what you can and should and may and might do, it just changes the technology slightly."
In both online and in-person speech, opinions are protected by the First Amendment, and defamation only becomes a factor when someone makes a statement of alleged fact about an individual. Mr Lake also noted that the sheer volume of tweets and Facebook posts produced on a daily basis would overwhelm any administrator trying to screen comments.
Joe Storch, associate counsel in the Office of the General Counsel at the State University of New York, said one of the best things administrators can do is set a good example.
"What we've always advised is that one of the best things colleges can do is to model positive behavior for students," Mr Storch said.
Mr Lake added that these Haters blogs highlight an opportunity for education, particularly as campuses become more international.
"I don't know how good a job we've done to help the obvious cultural and assimilation issues that are going to happen," he said. "We have to teach that. You can't just throw people together and say: 'Figure it out.'"