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Confessions of a Dangerous Kind

March 5, 2014

Search for your alma mater and add the word “confessions” -- you will likely find a website where current students anonymously pour their hearts out about life on campus. While honesty, or gossip, can be cathartic, some students find themselves the target of hateful posts -- and colleges are often unsure how to respond.

Confession websites have been around for years, but the rising popularity of social media and wireless devices have made them more difficult to control. Campus IT offices can blacklist sites from university networks, but when the page is hosted on a popular platform such as Facebook -- or accessed on a cell phone -- blocking only closes one lane of access.

“Shutting down a privately hosted site is not easy, nor uncomplicated,” said Justin Anderson, assistant vice president for media relations at Dartmouth College. “We do have the ability to keep it off of our server, but we certainly don’t have the ability to block access to it effectively.”

That means students are free to share posts such as these:

A University of Minnesota student on Feb. 21: “When I'm sad and feel like cutting I search the suicide tags on tumblr and leave happy/inspiring messages to others who feel sad.” A University of Oregon student on Jan. 7: “I might be slutty, but I have so many funny stories to tell later in life that it's all worth it.” A University of Maine student on Feb. 27: “I love bad bitches.” And those are all pretty tame.

In some cases, universities are left waiting for the fad to die down. “We've seen before that, eventually, the ‘market,’ if you will, corrects itself,” Dennis O'Shea, executive director for media relations at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email. “Students come to feel that these sites are unworthy of their time and interest, and the sites fade away.”

Most posts are innocent confessions about crushes and pranks -- or just hoaxes -- but occasionally, students use the sites to launch anonymous attacks and start rumors. That’s what happened recently at Hopkins, where a confessions page on Facebook turned into “a hub for cyberbullying and controversial posts about race and sexual orientation,” according to the independent student newspaper The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

“It's unfortunate that from time to time, at colleges across the country, these things pop up,” O’Shea wrote. “It's unfortunate that a very few people are willing to hide behind the mask of anonymity to say things to which they would never attach their names and reputations.”

The undergrads behind the Facebook page, speaking -- yes, anonymously -- to The News-Letter, put the page in read-only mode while they established new moderation rules. Every new submission will now be read and approved on a case-by-case basis (the system had previously posted all submissions to the page at 30-minute intervals). That may mean less offensive content, but also a lot more work for the moderators, who receive about 150 posts a day.

“In this case, I'm pleased to see that the anonymous page administrators themselves are aware that there is a problem and are taking steps to try to correct it,” O’Shea wrote.

This is not the first time a confession website created by Hopkins students has been a source of controversy. In 2008, two graduate students launched JHUConfessions.com, which later expanded to become CollegeACB.com (Anonymous Confession Board), where students from hundreds of different institutions could come together to gossip. That site later came under fire for the content students shared -- even though each post could be flagged as offensive -- and disappeared a few years later.

More privately hosted sites have appeared in CollegeACB’s wake, including Bored@, which deems itself as an “anonymous social network for educational institutions.” At Dartmouth College, the site is known as Bored@Baker, a reference to the Baker-Berry Library. Membership is restricted to users with an email address ending in “dartmouth.edu” or “alum.dartmouth.org” -- in other words, current and former students.

Dartmouth recently launched an investigation in response to a freshman who said she was sexually assaulted after having been named in a “rape guide” posted to the website. The case did not turn up a report of sexual assault in connection with the post, but the university was able to identify the author, who is now undergoing Dartmouth’s disciplinary process, Anderson said.

According to Anderson, Bored@Baker is a “repeat offender” at Dartmouth. “That is to say that it has become a place where we are seeing, in instance after instance, people being targeted.... For the most part [the moderators are] responsive, but in almost every instance, the damage has been done, and it’s of cold comfort that the offending posts get removed after they’ve already had a shelf life long enough to really cause distress and do emotional damage to people who have been targeted.”

In many cases, students enjoy First Amendment protection and can’t be held liable for their posts, but Tracy Mitrano, the former director of IT Policy at Cornell University, said some speech may be seen as an assault under criminal law.

“Colleges and universities would do well to borrow these legal concepts and formulate through campus discussion and debate reasonable definitions and standards to incorporate into campus codes of conduct,” Mitrano, who also blogs for Inside Higher Ed, said in an email, adding that “an individual member of the community may enjoy free speech but may also within the community find their speech implicates other provisions under the campus code.”

The “rape guide” was in other words a clear violation of Dartmouth’s campus code -- not to mention Bored@Baker’s terms of service -- which spurred the university into action.

“While we certainly have a healthy respect for the First Amendment, we also want to make it clear that as a community, we have standards and and expect that ... we will treat one another with respect,” Anderson said. Those expectations stay constant no matter where the behavior takes place, he pointed out. “The fact that the posts are anonymous pose some challenges, and we’re not always going to be able to determine who the author of a post is, but we certainly have resources that allow us to do that when we think that there’s a member of our community whose safety has been jeopardized.”

 

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