How A Social Media Scandal Unfolded At Harvard Social media sites offer quick and easy ways to share ideas, crack jokes, find old friends. They can make us feel part of something big and wonderful and fast-moving. But the things we post don't go away. And they can come back to haunt us. This week, we explore how one teenager's social media posts destroyed a golden opportunity he'd worked for all his life.
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Online Behavior, Real-Life Consequences: The Unfolding Of A Social Media Scandal

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Online Behavior, Real-Life Consequences: The Unfolding Of A Social Media Scandal

Online Behavior, Real-Life Consequences: The Unfolding Of A Social Media Scandal

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/758281834/759206407" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a photo made its way around the Internet. It showed a man standing on the observation deck at the World Trade Center in New York City. His face is expressionless, unsmiling. He's wearing a knitted black cap, sunglasses and an unzipped parka. Behind him, a deep blue sky, views of Manhattan and the Hudson River. But there's something else behind him, too, a plane. It's headed straight toward the tower. Rumor had it, the man died that day and his camera was later pulled from the rubble.

It's an amazing shot and an amazing story. And it's totally false.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The man is Peter Guzli, and he's Hungarian. The picture was snapped several years before the terrorist attacks. After 9/11, Peter Guzli photoshopped in the plane and emailed the image to a few friends as a joke. Those friends shared the image with their friends, and their friends shared it with more friends. And soon, the photo was everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Ten years after the attacks, Peter Guzli publicly apologized. He said he was ashamed and sorry and hadn't considered the consequences. He said, I never thought it would go out of my tight circle of friends.

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn't. The image turned Peter Guzli into a meme star. On social media today, he's known as the tourist guy or, sometimes, as the tourist of death. Strangers online have photoshopped the same image of an expressionless Peter Guzli with his parka, knit cap and sunglasses, into all kinds of famous scenes where something terrible has just happened or is about to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: He's in the motorcade with John F. Kennedy moments before the president gets shot. In a cave next to Osama bin Laden. In the foreground as the Hindenburg explodes. Whether he wants this role today is not up to Peter Guzli anymore. The tourist of death now belongs to the Internet. It does what it wants with the image.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Coming up, we have the story of a young man who made a terrible mistake on social media, a mistake that destroyed the future he had imagined for himself. This story is about a fault line that runs through our lives. On social media, we're encouraged to be quick, clever, edgy. The funny videos and amusing banter we engage in seem low stakes.

But they are not. A larger world is watching. It's usually silent, but every now and then something we say or do can ignite a firestorm. And then nothing you say can undo the damage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Beauty sometimes appears in unexpected places. I'm sitting in a low chair woven from bungee cord, staring at the crumpled sheets of an unmade bed. To my right is a desk cluttered with textbooks, a stick of deodorant and a half-eaten jar of Nutella. The room has the slight tangy smell of a gym locker. It belongs to a 20-year-old named William. We're not using his last name for reasons that will become clear shortly.

William is a musician. After chatting for a few minutes, he pulls a worn case from under his bed.

WILLIAM: So this is actually a 1910 violin by a guy named Heberlein. Yeah. Heinrich Theodor Heberlein, 1910, made in Germany.

VEDANTAM: The amber wood gleams. William got this violin when he was just a sophomore in high school.

WILLIAM: Totally couldn't afford it. I emptied my bank account for it. My parents emptied their bank accounts for it. And my grandparents helped me out, too.

VEDANTAM: They did it because William is good. By ninth grade, William's violin instructor was letting him choose what he wanted to play.

WILLIAM: The first piece I picked to play was Viotti's 22 Violin Concerto. I just heard this melody.

(Playing violin).

Wait. No. Let me start - let me start again. That's a different ornament.

(Playing violin).

VEDANTAM: It felt strange to hear such elegant music in this messy room.

WILLIAM: (Playing violin).

VEDANTAM: As he plays, William changes. He goes from a boyish 20-year-old to someone mature and intense. His eyes close. His brow furrows. His body sways back and forth as it follows the bow. It's like he's become a part of his instrument.

WILLIAM: (Playing violin). So, like, that's the opening section to that concerto. And that would just get stuck in my head so easily that I just - I so wanted to play it.

VEDANTAM: And you don't need music to play?

WILLIAM: No. No. I memorize everything.

(Playing violin).

VEDANTAM: For the next half hour, he treats me to a mini concert, one that includes the middle movement of a suite by Ernest Bloch, and compositions by Paganini, Vieuxtemps and Sibelius.

WILLIAM: (Playing violin).

VEDANTAM: After he stashes his violin, the conversation turns to other topics, winding its way eventually to the mathematical symbol pi. Just mentioning the word trips something in William's brain.

WILLIAM: Wait. Let's see how many digits of pi I remember. I, like, learned them in, like, sixth grade. OK. OK - 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993. That's as much as I know.

VEDANTAM: Given that it goes on infinitely long, that's not very much.

WILLIAM: No, it's not.

VEDANTAM: Sorry. I'm kidding. I'm teasing you. (Laughter).

The moment reveals something about William. He likes to see how far he can push himself. It's reflected in everything he does. He plays with a professional symphony orchestra. He's won awards for economics and physics. He plays competitive golf. His list of achievements is long. But that list got tossed out when the mistake he made undid everything.

We're going to tell you about that mistake. But first, it's important to understand something about William's upbringing. He grew up in a small city in Pennsylvania.

WILLIAM: And it's kind of in the middle of nowhere.

VEDANTAM: He was, as his father, Jeffrey (ph), tells me, an exceptionally kind and gentle child.

JEFFREY: My wife, when he was born and for the first years of his life, always referred to him as Sweet William because his disposition was so incredibly sweet.

VEDANTAM: William's family isn't wealthy, but he had plenty of advantages. Old home-videos show what seems like a pretty idyllic childhood. There's one of William running to home base in Little League...

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

VEDANTAM: ...Another of him, when he's just 8, sitting in the cockpit of a small plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, William, what'd you do?

WILLIAM: Flew around out there a bit, and then we came in.

VEDANTAM: There's one when he's 11 recounting for his dad every shot he made on an 18-hole golf course.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

WILLIAM: The first hole, I had a little birdie putt. But I missed it. Second hole, I hit a sand wedge into a couple of feet and then saved par. And then three, I failed to get up and down. Four...

VEDANTAM: By high school, he was playing with the local symphony orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA PLAYING)

VEDANTAM: He was getting noticed.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Without further ado, I'm obliged to announce that William is the 2017 performing artist of the year.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: William put the same energy into his studies. He had an epiphany one day in his sophomore year of high school during AP physics. The class was studying momentum - or the work energy theorem. He can't quite remember - and he began to see connections he hadn't seen before.

WILLIAM: You know, these are ideas that, if you first look at them, they're kind of crazy. But you do the math, and you convince yourself of it and you think about it. You think about it hard. And you realize that they make total sense and they're second nature. And when you arrive at that point, that's just so satisfying to me.

VEDANTAM: More than anything, Williams says he loves moments of epiphany when everything becomes clear. If you haven't picked up on this already, I like William. I like him not because of his math skills or his violin playing, but because of a single quality that cuts across different domains in his life. William takes genuine pleasure in ideas and learning. When you combine that with drive and determination, it's a pretty special combination.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF CLUB STRIKING BALL)

VEDANTAM: I tag along as he goes to practice at a nearby golf course. We're standing on a hill. William pulls out a club and takes a few practice swings.

WILLIAM: So this is a three-wood. This is actually my coach's three-wood.

VEDANTAM: He steadies the club and concentrates on a ball in front of him.

WILLIAM: If I hit this well, it should get to the green.

VEDANTAM: The green he's aiming for is a tiny speck, across a road, on top of another far-off hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF CLUB STRIKING BALL)

VEDANTAM: After he hits the ball, I lose sight of it. But William seems to know where it's gone.

WILLIAM: So I have a general idea that this hole is about, give or take, 270 yards long. So I should be, you know, not that far from the green.

VEDANTAM: He's right. Three more strokes, and the ball is in the hole for par.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF BALL FALLING INTO HOLE)

VEDANTAM: Golf, for William, has lots in common with the violin. Both offer a challenge. Both draw on individual effort, on practice. Golf has also done something else for William. It's given him insight into taking responsibility for the broken pieces of his life.

WILLIAM: When you're playing golf, you hit a ball in the trees. You know, you hit it there. It's on you. And you can be upset about that all you want, but it doesn't change the fact that the ball is in the trees. And you still have to get that ball in the hole. So now you have to treat it as if your ball was always in the trees. And you just have to figure out the best shot to hit from there and see what the best score you can make of it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: That's what William is doing now, figuring out how to move on from the mistake he made and all the loss that followed. He says he's choosing a path of complete honesty. And that's why he's decided to tell us what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: In the fall of 2016, William was starting his senior year of high school and thinking hard about college. He wanted a college that valued learning for learning's sake, for the joy that came with epiphanies. He was less interested in a college that merely sought to prepare him for employment. And because he's William, and because he loves a challenge, he decided to go for it, to try for Harvard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAM: I had kind of figured that I didn't have that great of a shot of being accepted.

VEDANTAM: William felt he wasn't in the same league as kids who get into Harvard. He assumed most kids who made it were nationally recognized in some way.

WILLIAM: So I, you know, didn't have the opportunities to do great research at great universities in high school still, or doing really cool projects for science fairs, like, national science fairs. Never heard of, like, International Math Olympiad or International Physics Olympiad. Never heard of these things. So I kind of figured where I was at, if I got in, it would just be because they liked me for some reason. And what are the chances of that?

VEDANTAM: William applied early action to Harvard, meaning he would hear back from the school by mid-December. If he didn't get in, he would still have time to apply to other schools. On Harvard's announcement day, William was home with a friend. The decision was due at 5:00 p.m.

WILLIAM: And we were just hanging out. We had been playing pingpong downstairs in my basement for a couple hours just to kill time.

VEDANTAM: At 5 o'clock, William opened his computer.

WILLIAM: About 5:05 or so something showed up. And it said - it was a new form that said admitted students reply form.

VEDANTAM: It was confusing but seemed like a good sign.

WILLIAM: And then about 5:20, I want to say, the actual letter that said congratulations popped up.

VEDANTAM: There was more good news.

WILLIAM: I was going to be going to my top choice, dream school, and I got a letter saying that my financial aid package was, like, so great that I would be able to go to college and not have to take on debt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: It's worth taking a moment to think about what William's acceptance to Harvard meant. More Nobel Prize winners are associated with Harvard than any other university in the world. Every member of the U.S. Supreme Court attended law school at Harvard or Yale. The university's endowment is larger than the GDP of more than half the countries on the planet. Elite schools have come in for a lot of criticism lately, but there's little doubt why they are elite. They give their students a golden key to unlock every conceivable door.

The recent college admissions scandal where wealthy parents paid bribes to get their children into top schools has put a price tag on the value of these golden keys. One family offered $6.5 million for a spot at Stanford. For a kid from a middle-class family in rural Pennsylvania, it was like winning the jackpot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The next day, William was invited by the Harvard admissions office to join the official class of 2021 Facebook group. He signed on, started to get to know his future classmates.

WILLIAM: There were the typical introductions that people did, personal introductions usually a couple paragraphs long. I think this happens in just about every class Facebook page for smaller class-size universities and colleges. So you get to know people in that way, and you comment on their stuff and maybe message them.

VEDANTAM: William was blown away by the people he met.

WILLIAM: I was just so impressed by everything that they'd done, the way they carried themselves. I was so impressed with it. I was a little bit intimidated - a little bit but mostly just in awe of, like, wow, these are all - like, these are all great people I'm looking at.

VEDANTAM: William felt that all the kids on the Facebook group were incredibly accomplished. They were superstars from all over the world. He keenly felt the need to find his place among them. He was going through an age-old experience but with a high-octane twist. In the past, ice-breaking introductions of freshman year were made in person at social gatherings on campus. Now they were happening in the months before school even started in the parallel universe that is social media. William joined several group chats.

WILLIAM: So I joined a math group chat. I joined a economics and political science group chat. I joined a general group chat that was on GroupMe.

VEDANTAM: At first, William says, there was tons of excitement and messaging and getting to know each other, but then it slowed down until the following spring. That's when the regular admission students joined in. Suddenly, there was a new burst of energy. William got back into it, and in late, March he joined a private chat he found through the Harvard Facebook page. It was a group chat about meme culture.

For those who aren't familiar with memes, these are images - sometimes with a caption - that often juxtapose unrelated concepts, like putting the tourist of death in the JFK motorcade or a picture of a volcano exploding in the context of a family quarrel. Often, it's the incongruity of these juxtapositions that gives memes their humor and their power as social commentary. Memes are also a way to telegraph you and I are part of the same in-group. We understand the same cultural references. Williams says, at first, the memes were just banter.

WILLIAM: It was a little bit immature, just wacky more than anything else.

VEDANTAM: But then a few people started sending edgier memes.

WILLIAM: Edgy meaning, like, offensive I guess.

VEDANTAM: Eventually, the students sending edgy memes broke off and formed a new private group chat. They set up a rule - you had to first post an edgy meme to the bigger meme chat group in order to be admitted to the subgroup.

WILLIAM: It eventually evolved into basically a contest of who could send the edgiest meme.

VEDANTAM: William, of course, loves challenges. He started hunting for the edginess of edgy memes.

WILLIAM: It was kind of interesting to see it evolve from what it originally was, which was just being sort of wacky, into - just straight into the depths of society and the worst things that society has to offer.

VEDANTAM: Like what?

WILLIAM: Well, there were definitely memes made about the Holocaust, about the scandal in Catholicism, of, you know, young boys and priests. Yeah, it was a lot of the stuff that's, like, you don't want to touch in, like, normal, everyday conversation unless you're condemning it.

VEDANTAM: I asked William why people would send these memes to each other. His answer - they're funny.

WILLIAM: And the reason that they're funny and they get you to laugh is in part because they walk so close to the line, you know? Now it's a different kind of funny because it comes with this weight of, like, wow, our society is really terrible. And it's the shock value. It's the fact that somebody is willing to say that. That's just so outrageous. And you understand with each other that you're not being serious, and these aren't your exact thoughts, right? That's part of what makes it a meme.

VEDANTAM: It was like the social media version of a comedy club. Joking about what a bigot might say can be a way to expose bigotry. The more shocking the joke, the bigger the laughs.

WILLIAM: One of the things that we had in the chat was you'd send a fire emoji, you know, just to say, oh, that's fire. That's something that's I guess very familiar to young people. It's a sort of slang but fire just meaning, like, that's gold. That's great stuff right there. So we'd send, like, fire emojis so you could tell when people liked a meme by how many fire emojis you saw after it and how many people would go, OMG, LOL, right?

VEDANTAM: Williams says he sent about 10 memes over the span of a couple of weeks. They varied in edginess or, as Williams says, in dankness. He gives this example of one of the milder ones.

WILLIAM: So, like, two meme numbers, I guess, are, like, 420 and 69; 420 is, like, talking about smoking marijuana and 69 is, like, a sexual position. So I think I made a meme that, like, was me typing in 420 to the 69th power into my calculator. And then the calculator returned, like, error, overload. And I turned it into a meme that said, like, error, overload of dankness, right? Dank being, like, you know, dank meme, like, great meme.

VEDANTAM: William also sent two memes that were far worse. He still remembers the day he did it. He was with a friend, a fellow musician, driving down the highway. They were headed to a Future Business Leaders of America state competition.

WILLIAM: And we were listening to Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto in the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2")

VEDANTAM: The two teenagers were having a nonstop meandering conversation over the merits of Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto 2" versus Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto 3."

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2")

VEDANTAM: William would occasionally glance at his phone to see the latest meme.

WILLIAM: If there was a new message that popped up, I'd, like, look at it and tell him and I'd tell him what it was, and he'd laugh and I'd laugh and, you know...

VEDANTAM: Meanwhile, William was also Googling for memes that he could post. He went on sites that contained controversial memes. He chose one.

WILLIAM: It was a picture of a pregnant woman's stomach and it had, like, a loading bar across it and it said, loading, 75%. And then right below that was a picture of a child with birth defects that said, error. That's just, like - it's pretty offensive.

VEDANTAM: A little while later on the same drive, he sent another meme.

WILLIAM: So this is definitely the worst one that I sent - just, you know, not good. Now, I'm going to preface this by saying it still requires the same understanding and siding with the victim. But it's just, like, too far on that offensiveness scale. So it was a picture of a sloth whispering into a woman's ear. And it said, she put me in the friend zone, so I put her in the rape zone.

VEDANTAM: I don't get it, actually. What does that mean?

WILLIAM: The sloth is supposed to be a guy, and it's basically portraying guys, or at least this type of guy, as, like, a sloth, like, a bad type of person, sneaky, sly, slimy, you don't want to mess with him type person. So it's still saying that, like, people like this are bad people. That's still embedded in the meme, but it's not as clear. You see, like, you didn't get the sloth when I first explained it, and that's part of the problem with that meme in particular. It's not clear enough, especially for the weight of that issue because, like, you know, this throws up red flags to colleges because it's a big problem on college campuses. So they don't want someone who's, like, too free in talking about this and seems comfortable with rape on their campus, right? So it's - that's why it's extra problematic.

VEDANTAM: So when you were sending these, what were you aiming to get from the group? What did you think was going to come from them?

WILLIAM: I was trying to make friends. I was nervous about, like, going to college and not really having friends. It - I guess it goes back to a lack of self-confidence on my part almost because I didn't feel like I was adequate to be friends with these people without kind of elevating myself to that level of meme-ory (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: There's really two ways to sort of interpret what happened. I mean, you're - on the one hand, you know, you're a good student. You're into music. You're into sports. You're well loved by the community. You get into Harvard. You're a kid from a small town. You've made good. You make a boneheaded mistake. That's one narrative. The other narrative is, look, you come from a family of privilege. You got into one of the top schools. Certainly your privilege probably helped you along the way, in ways big and small. And you abused that privilege by saying things about people who, in some ways, were much weaker than you. Which version of that is correct?

WILLIAM: I would like to think the first version. And the reason I say that is because I know myself and my intentions. And the second version of that story is very much at odds with who I am and what my intentions were. The phrase abused your privilege kind of implies some sort of intent. And I think that couldn't be further from the truth because when I look introspectively at my own thoughts, the way I treat other people, I don't think that's me.

VEDANTAM: William says he understood even at the time that the meme group chat was going too far.

WILLIAM: And the way I know that is before I would send one of the crazy ones, I'd get a sort of pit in my stomach, a swell. I don't know what to call it. You know that bad feeling when you know you're about to do something stupid, you're about to do something bad, I got that. And the part about what I did that messes me up the most, I guess, is the fact that I didn't listen to that, and I just went ahead and hit send anyway.

VEDANTAM: He hit send anyway. And then the memes were off. They could never be taken back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: It's now April, a couple of weeks after William sent the memes. He's in class at the end of his senior year of high school, working on a physics exam. His phone starts to vibrate.

WILLIAM: And it's buzzing like. I'm like, someone's calling me, but I'll ignore it. And it buzzes again, keeps buzzing. I keep letting it go. And I keep getting this call, like, probably four, five, six times.

VEDANTAM: Finally, he asks his teacher if he can answer it.

WILLIAM: And he's like, yeah, sure, go for it. 'Cause he's super relaxed. You know, we've known each other for a few years now so he trusts me. So I pick it up, and it's one of my friends from the chat, who's like, oh, my God. Will, like, they know. Check your email. They know.

VEDANTAM: They was Harvard. In William's inbox was a note from Harvard admissions. William read it to me that day I met with him.

WILLIAM: So this was April 11, 2017, at 2:04 p.m. It said, (reading) Dear William, it is unfortunate that I have to reach out about this situation. The admissions committee was disappointed to learn that several students in a private group chat for the class of 2021 were sending messages that contained offensive messages and graphics. As we understand, you were among the members contributing such material to this chat. We are asking that you submit a statement by tomorrow at noon to explain your contributions and actions for discussion with the admissions committee.

VEDANTAM: William was devastated. But in the stunned shock that followed, he composed a response.

WILLIAM: So (reading) Dear Harvard admissions, I'm incredibly sorry for and deeply regret my irresponsible decision to participate and engage in inflammatory behavior on the unofficial meme group chat. I originally joined the group chat in hopes of meeting future friends and becoming comfortable with the other members of the class of 2021, hoping to fit in with the group.

VEDANTAM: William tried to explain how things had spiraled.

WILLIAM: (Reading) Unfortunately, it is far too easy to act out of character behind a screen in a fast-paced setting and to say things that I would never say or even think of during the course of everyday life.

VEDANTAM: A few days later, Harvard asked for more information, including images of the memes.

WILLIAM: (Reading) Please provide, no later than noon Monday, a full explanation of your role with identifications of each of your contributions thereto.

VEDANTAM: The letter also told him he was not welcome at Visitas, the annual gathering of admitted students.

WILLIAM: (Reading) As your admission status is presently under review, please do not plan on attending the upcoming Visitas weekend on campus. Thank you. Redacted.

VEDANTAM: On Easter Sunday, after that second note, William finally told his dad what was going on.

WILLIAM: Well, he told me, you know, I'm in trouble. I mean, you know, Harvard's investigating me for this. And this was Easter Sunday.

VEDANTAM: Jeffrey felt blindsided.

JEFFREY: I never saw this coming in a million years. I mean, there's a small chance that our solar system could be blasted out of existence by some cosmic - gamma ray burst, I think they call it. You know, that, at least I would expect with very, very small probability. This was less than that. I mean, I didn't even know this kind of thing was possible.

VEDANTAM: He walked downstairs.

JEFFREY: And my wife was cutting vegetables with a big knife. And I said to her, you know, put the knife down. Sit down. I've got to tell you something really heavy. And I told her, and she burst into tears because her first thought was one of these kids is going to commit suicide.

WILLIAM: So Easter dinner that night was silent.

VEDANTAM: No one said anything at all?

WILLIAM: I think about two sentences were said. Like, I think I can count exactly two sentences. One said, like, can you pass me the butter? And that was my mom addressing my dad. And then my mom also said, well, thank you Jeffrey, this was very good.

VEDANTAM: And what went through your mind as you were sitting at the table, Will, with your two parents?

WILLIAM: I kept my head down. I was, like, staring at the edge of the table. And I was very closed off. I can remember the way I felt my shoulders were kind of closed in, hunched. My back was hunched. My hands were kind of between my knees, except when I was going in to eat something. And I was pretty intent on not really saying anything. It was - it was just one of those moments where you just want to crawl in a hole.

VEDANTAM: Did you feel you'd let your parents down?

WILLIAM: Yeah. But my primary concern was that I definitely let myself down. I definitely knew that there is a chance I just squandered, you know, the greatest opportunity that had been given to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: For nine days, William heard nothing. Visitas came and went. And then on a Wednesday, as he was driving south on Route 15 past the McDonald's, his phone buzzed. It was the same friend who had called before. He sounded in bad shape. He told William to check his email.

WILLIAM: OK. So it said, (reading) I write to follow up on our earlier communications. The committee on admissions has reevaluated your application, and I am very sorry to inform you that it is withdrawing its offer to you of admission to Harvard College. As you are aware, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions, including if you engage or have engaged in behavior that brings into question your honesty, maturity or moral character.

I can read that part really fast because I have it memorized.

(Reading) After careful and extensive consideration and discussion, the committee made the difficult decision to withdraw the offer of admission. Please be aware that this decision is final.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: William sat for a while in his car on the side of the road. In the next weeks, as he finished up at high school, he had to face friends and teachers who had thought he was a star. He told his principal what had happened. Word started to get out. William remembers walking into choir rehearsal and feeling the stares of his classmates. His prom date sent him a text telling him she couldn't go to the dance with him because her mom didn't want her going to prom with someone who would get kicked out of school.

Because he had applied early action to Harvard and gotten in, he hadn't applied to any other schools. It was now too late. For the next year, he would have to stay behind in his little city in the middle of Pennsylvania while all his friends went off to college.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: One night, William stayed long past sunset at the golf course. It was so dark, he says, he could see sparks fly when he hit the ball.

WILLIAM: I ended up just lying down on the ground out on the range. It was dark enough. There was nobody else at the golf course. And I just remember lying down on the range, and I called a couple people that I promised I would call if I was ever having any trouble and talked to them and kept lying there for probably another half hour, 45 minutes. And then I drove home, white knuckles on the steering wheel, just telling myself the entire time, like, don't swerve into the barrier, don't swerve off the cliff, whatever.

VEDANTAM: And then it got worse. In June, William's dad recalls, the Harvard student newspaper The Crimson broke the story of the group of students who had been rescinded.

JEFFREY: And then within two hours, it was all over the world. My cousins in Europe were telling me it's on the BBC here. And of course, it was New York Times, Boston Globe, NPR, Fox News, every - CNN. It was everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Every year, Harvard accepts the best and the brightest. But some of the latest incoming freshmen have already been kicked out.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Harvard Crimson outlining the content of the memes, some sexually explicit, others targeting...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: According to the Crimson, the group was called Harvard Memes for Horny Bourgeois Teens. The university revoked...

JEFFREY: CNN had a headline that I really hated. It was, like, Harvard rescinds bigoted students. And I wondered, who at CNN put the word bigoted in there? I mean, what did they know about this?

VEDANTAM: William says that one of the ironies of the scandal was that the group of rescinded kids was even more diverse than the incoming class as a whole. Many of the memes most offensive to various groups were posted by students who are themselves members of those groups. It was almost like they were taking the most offensive things people say about people like them and using this pain as a form of currency to win favor with new friends.

WILLIAM: There was an Emmett Till meme. There was another one about lynching. They were both sent by an African American kid. There was a meme...

VEDANTAM: What was the Emmett Till meme? Do you remember?

WILLIAM: It said, when your mom walks in on you mid-nut bust. So making a reference to masturbation. And it's the famous picture of Emmett Till. Like, the recovered body after he's been totally bludgeoned. And, you know, just not great. But it was - it was a member of the African American community sending that. There was also another one that said - that said, when the Mexican kid hangs himself in the school bathroom. Then it said, it's pinata time. That was sent by a Hispanic guy.

There were also various memes dealing with the Holocaust, mostly sent by a Jewish girl. Most of the memes about terrorists were sent by the person I know from Lebanon who's seen suicide bombings in real life, like, seen them happen. So if anyone's, like, justified to make a meme about that, you'd think, you know, it's them.

VEDANTAM: We tried to independently confirm the content of the memes shared within this private Facebook group. There were elements of various memes that we could confirm, but most of the details in the story come from William himself. Harvard has never released the names of the rescinded students and has stuck to its policy of not discussing any admission decisions. In a statement, Rachael Dane, a university spokeswoman, only said Harvard reserved the right to rescind offers of admission to students who fail to graduate or didn't keep up their high school grades or, quote, "engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character." In other words, if you didn't turn out to be the person Harvard thought you were, the university reserves the right to change its mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: William says everyone he knows who got kicked out struggled in different ways.

WILLIAM: Like, there were students who were thinking, oh, my God, my parents are going to kill me because they've been working in the background my whole life to set me up for this kind of success. And I - you know, I blew it, and they're going to be furious with me. But then there were other students who were really coming from nothing. And this - there were students who, like, didn't know their dad and then right afterward - I'm thinking of one kid in particular. He didn't know his dad at all. And right after this happened, his mom died.

VEDANTAM: For his part, William tried to do the best he could during his unwanted gap year. He played in the symphony. He enrolled in math and physics courses at a local college. He won a physics award. He worked part time. Slowly, the months passed, and then it was time to try again. William let every school he was applying to know exactly what he had done.

WILLIAM: And what I decided I was most comfortable with was telling people because I feel like that's something that admissions people would want to know. They would find it a very unpleasant surprise. So if there is something that they should know, I think I should tell them.

VEDANTAM: In the fall of 2017, he submitted an early action application to Princeton. He felt he had a good shot. His interview went well. And William believed he was a better, more well-rounded person than he'd been the year before.

WILLIAM: So December 13, 2017, from Princeton University - (reading) dear William, I am sorry to inform you that we were not able to admit you to Princeton University this year. The admissions process is difficult for students and families, and we realize that you are likely to be disappointed with our decision.

VEDANTAM: It was a flat rejection. Next came MIT.

WILLIAM: (Reading) I am very sorry to tell you that you were not admitted to the MIT class of 2022. This is in no way...

VEDANTAM: And on it went.

WILLIAM: From Johns Hopkins - (reading) after a thorough review of your application, we regret to inform you...

The University of Chicago - (reading) after much consideration, I regret to inform you that we...

(Reading) I am very sorry to let you know we were unable to offer you admission to Stanford.

VEDANTAM: William had reapplied to Harvard and also to Yale, Columbia and Brown Universities. Jeffrey remembers what happened on the day all those schools announced their decisions.

JEFFREY: The bleakest day, a year later, I remember was on what they call Ivy Day. It's when all the Ivy League colleges decide on the same day, you know, who their taking. And I remember he got rejected by all of them a year later. And my wife and I immediately went to where he was in lab at the college to just show him that we were there for him. And he turned and he looked at us, and the look on his face, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to see in my son. It was this look of utter despair.

VEDANTAM: Now, it's not the end of the world to get rejected by the Ivy Leagues. There are plenty of excellent universities and colleges and community colleges across the country. And in the end, it wasn't a shut out. Of the 17 schools he'd applied to, William was accepted to two - UCLA and Penn State. He was waitlisted at three. Eventually, one of those waitlist schools offered him a slot. William and his dad rushed to visit the campus.

JEFFREY: We were wandering around, and there was something about an open house, and it turned out, we'd missed it. And so I was very disappointed. And then this professor just wandered in and said, can I help you? He looked like he was picking up something from a printer. And we said, well, we're visiting and William has to decide by 5 o'clock. And he said, please, come to my office. So we went to his office, and I just sat there, too, with them. He and William had this wonderful conversation about physics and music and all kinds of things for about an hour. And it was just an amazing conversation. I was very impressed. He was giving us so much of his time.

And then the moment that I'll never forget was, at one point, he just gets out of his chair, he gets down on one knee, he puts his hands together and he says, please, come here. And then he just got back in his seat and kept on talking. And I thought, oh, my God, that is the sweetest, most wonderful thing in this whole year. I mean, God, I'm starting to tear up now. But I just - it was amazing. I love that guy.

And I thought, you know, when I get back home, I'm going to write the chair of the physics department, and I'm going to say what a wonderful professor that guy was. And I got home, looked up who this guy was, and that was the chair of the physics department. I said, oh, my God, you know, what a wonderful place. So anyway, as you can tell, I don't think I've gotten emotional about this since then, but I just want to thank that professor.

VEDANTAM: And what do you think is evoking this feeling in you? What do you think that professor was doing? What was he communicating to William that makes you so moved?

JEFFREY: He was being good to my son.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When I met him, William had just finished his first year at college. He's doing well. But he still struggles with the what if. He's had a hard time letting go of what his life might have been like at Harvard. He says he doesn't blame the Harvard admissions office in any way. In fact, he says that if he was in their shoes, he probably would have made the same decision. He takes full responsibility for what he did.

WILLIAM: Like, I tell people when they meet me in a serious context, you know, if I ever do something wrong, like, please tell me and call me out for it. And I will look you in the eye, tell you I'm sorry and that I'll do better next time, and I'll mean it. And that's something that I honestly believe that I've done a good job at committing myself to.

VEDANTAM: William is still active on social media, and despite all the trouble memes have caused him, he still likes them. When we were out on the golf course, he told me that during his freshman year, he couldn't resist signing up for a class he saw advertised on campus. It was about memes. One night at the meme class, an old friend of his was visiting. She happened to go to Harvard and was in the same class William would have been in had he not been kicked out. He invited her to the meme class.

WILLIAM: So walk in and I introduce her. I'm like, hey, guys, this is my friend from Harvard. So we sit down. We're going through the class. The week's topic was college meme pages. But they threw in a slide about the Harvard meme scandal (laughter). They didn't know. They didn't know. And my friend from Harvard was there, and I had introduced her. And then they're like, oh, yeah, you're from Harvard. Do you know anything about this? And she's like, kind of.

VEDANTAM: William finally fessed up.

WILLIAM: I said, so remember at the beginning of the semester when I said memes completely changed the course of my life? And then all their jaws dropped. They're like, do you want to teach the class right now?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When I first talked to William's father, Jeffrey, we ruminated on a puzzle. Nearly everything that everyone says on social media goes unnoticed. And everyone can see you're getting no traction. This can drive some of us to come up with the edgiest, funniest, hottest stakes. Likes and retweets and fire emojis become currency, signaling our worth to those around us. Sometimes the things we post work, and we become stars. Other times, we fall flat or, worse, my joke sets off your rage. When this happens, it's no use saying there is even more terrible stuff online. There is only a price to pay. The things we post take on a life of their own, and they can be as permanent as a scar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Laura Kwerel, Thomas Lu and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. We had original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei.

Our unsung heroes this week are Anthony Utz and Chris Nelson. We recently needed new computers for the HIDDEN BRAIN team, and Anthony and Chris managed the entire process. They did the research to choose the computers that would work best for us, expedited the order and quickly added the software we needed to work on this episode. Journalists always appreciate colleagues who get things done on a tight turnaround. Anthony and Chris came through with great collegiality and good humor. Many thanks to both.

If this episode spoke to you, please share it with a friend. If you know someone who posts lots of things on social media, they might want to listen to it. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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