We’re not laughing: a meme too far?

Social media slip-up causes controversy for US Department of Education

July 10, 2014

“Help me, I’m poor.” This is the caption displayed beneath a picture from the film Bridesmaids in reference to a scene on a plane in which Kristen Wiig’s character is told that she can’t sit in first class.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with higher education. Well, on this occasion, the picture was tweeted (and then deleted) on 24 June by the Office of Federal Student Aid at the US Department of Education, and was accompanied by the words: “If this is you, then you better fill out your FAFSA,” in reference to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form that students must complete to access financial assistance.

Needless to say, the picture did not go down well. “My God, now you’re laughing at the debt you put students in?” asked a Twitter user called @DXTraeger. “Unbelievable. Take this down,” wrote Anne Kress (@MCCPresident), president of Monroe Community College in New York.

Others were less offended. “I got a laugh out of it. I’m poor. I wasn’t offended. Because I knew it was a joke. Don’t be so serious 24/7,” tweeted Diego Anaya (@_diegoanaya). “Your [sic] marketing to young people using memes, which are popular among young people. I think you have little to nothing to apologize for,” added @themediateacher.

However, the Office of Federal Student Aid did apologise for the “insensitivity” of the tweet in a later message. “Our goal is to make college a reality for all,” it said. “We’re very sorry.”

In a statement reported by Inside Higher Ed, a spokeswoman from the Department of Education went further. “We apologize for this insensitive Twitter post, which flies in the face of our mission of opening doors of opportunity for every student,” said Dorie Nolt. “It was an ill-conceived attempt at reaching students through social media. We are reviewing our process for approving social media content to ensure it reflects the high standards we expect at the US Department of Education.”

In her Gross, Point-Blank blog, Liz Gross, a social media strategist for a large student loan servicer and previous director of university marketing and communications at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, says the tweet “may have been a calculated risk”. “I’m not going to condemn a social media team that has been among some of the most innovative in government for one message that received criticism,” she writes.

The blog points out that a previous meme by the Office of Federal Student Aid, which depicted a kitten accompanied by the phrase “You haven’t filled out your FAFSA yet? Are you kitten me?” had been very well received, and might explain why the office had been keen to try to replicate this success.

“I’m afraid that the backlash from one tweet will cause a chain reaction that stalls or shuts down the FAFSA social media program,” she adds. “They are doing the best they can to make federal financial aid accessible to the millennial generation. And they take some risks. Some risks turn into learning opportunities. I’m confident they’ll learn from this one.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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