U.S. Department of Education sends out insensitive tweet, then tries to hold #AskFAFSA

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is the program for college loans that is run by the U.S. Department of Education.  They have become the latest government agency to commit not one, but two major social media sins:

  • Attempting to use a meme and having it backfire ridiculously.
  • Holding an #Ask event and having it turn into a disaster.

Considering how much I owe in student loans, I should probably not do this blog entry, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the background.  First, in an attempt to encourage people to fill out the FAFSA, FAFSA’s Twitter account sent out this tweet:

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For those of you who don’t know, that’s actually Kristen Wig during a scene in the movie Bridesmaids.  I definitely didn’t know that and I’m not the only one. This tweet looked insensitive to poor people, and as you can imagine, the internet reacted accordingly, with numerous major media outlets covering the snafu.

The tweet was deleted and FAFSA apologized in a tweet, as well as a longer statement:

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, the spokeswoman. “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 U.S. Department of Education.

That would be bad enough, but it got even worse for the folks at the Department of Education, because days prior, they had started advertising for an #AskFafsa event, where anyone could submit their questions via the hashtag.  The event was scheduled to be held the day after the insensitive tweet was published, and at first, FAFSA tried to continue with the event.  Sample tweets included:

Realizing this was a terrible idea, the event was cancelled:

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In a statement on their Facebook page, the Department of Education said:

@FAFSA will not be holding tonight’s scheduled Twitter ‪#‎AskFAFSA‬ Office Hours. Our goal is to provide resources and tools to help students and families make informed decisions about the college going process. We value your input and are committed to bringing you information in a relevant way. For those of you who have already submitted questions for #AskFAFSA Office Hours we will answer you directly. If you have additional questions about your student loan please contact your student loan servicer: http://1.usa.gov/1iGN7qU

To their credit, they still answered many of the (legitimate) questions they received.

As I’ve noted before, these #Ask or #My events are just awful ideas.  If you have a certain level of prominence or controversy, and not enough supporters, you will get bombarded with negative questions that are meant to insult and troll.  The purpose of holding an event like this is to be able to answer legitimate questions, but too often, the noise drowns out your good intentions.  Holding events like these are simply not going to work.

As for the errand Bridesmaid tweet, two things went wrong.  First, the author of the tweet wrongly assumed that readers would get the reference.  Second, the Department of Education should never do anything that implies that it takes student debt lightly.  As millions of young adults (like me!) can testify, college loans are a major crisis in this country.  The Department of Education should be finding ways to make education more affordable, not trying to use cute internet memes.  It was an attempt at humor, which isn’t a bad thing, but it missed…badly.  It’s better to be serious and genuine than funny and offensive.

What do you think?  Should the government event touch memes, or leave those to the experts?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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