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November 6, 2017

Many Secrets, No Accountability

UChicago Secrets easily lends itself to hateful rhetoric.

In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve heard a lot about free expression—during O-Week seminars, in class discussions, on the front page of The Maroon, and most recently on the front page of The New York Times. Clearly, free speech is an enduring and heavily-contested issue on our campus and in our world.

Second only to free expression is the popularity of online content-generating and meme-producing communities on campus. I can’t scroll through my Facebook feed without running into new UChicago Crushes posts and more than a few memes about UChicago hookup culture. In fact, just last week, Maroon columnist Kathleen Cui criticized the flippant use of Rupi Kaur’s poetry on Facebook.

These online communities intersect with the issue of free speech in an important and often undiscussed way. The anonymous pages to which users can submit posts—UChicago Secrets, most notably—are experiments in free expression.

UChicago Secrets, a popular, student-driven Facebook page, accepts nameless submissions about “anything and everything relating to the University of Chicago” and publishes them throughout the day. Moreover, both UChicago and UChicago Secrets pride themselves on being communities premised on open discussion and free expression—to a point. The Secrets page touts a moderation policy which prohibits posts that “defame, deride, threaten, or harass” individuals by name and those that use “hate speech in an intentionally inflammatory way,” much like the line University president Robert Zimmer has drawn between open discourse and threatening behavior.

But there is an important difference between the principles of UChicago’s campus at large and those of UChicago Secrets, and that is anonymity. And anonymity is emboldening.

In a recent column, Maroon contributor Lucas Du characterized UChicago Secrets as a necessary outlet for the pent-up thoughts and feelings in our community. A way, in his words, for students to express their “truest, darkest thoughts.” However, there may be legitimate reasons for some of these thoughts to remain unsaid.

Only under the guise of anonymity would someone write, “I honestly hate poor people here. Like why even go to this university if you’re just gonna complain about tuition and donations to the econ department” or “Asian-Americans are fucking land stealing settler colonials just like white people” or “Daily reminder that if you’re not enrolled in calc 161 or higher and getting 80% then you’re brainless and should become an English and/or pub pol major.” And I only had to scroll back three days to find these, among many others like them.

Don’t get me wrong, the overwhelming majority of posts on UChicago Secrets do not read like these, but the fact that there are a significant number that do should give us reason for concern. Despite the moderation policies, I didn’t have to scroll for even 30 seconds to encounter multiple posts insulting various minority groups.

This type of anonymous free speech is dangerous. Between the legitimate questions, the jokes, and the pleas to stop talking in the Reg, there is something more insidious that emerges when one’s name is detached from one’s opinions. Indeed, anonymity offers those that hide behind it refuge from any sort of accountability.

In 2004, psychologist John Suler coined the “online disinhibition effect,” which states that online anonymity precipitates distance not only from one’s own identity, but also from civil standards of behavior. In other words, we are more likely to disregard codes of appropriate and decent conduct in a virtual reality free of consequences. Anonymity allows users of UChicago Secrets to take free expression to a new and perverse extreme. 

I’m not suggesting that we should all be tied to the childhood trope, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” though I think this is a helpful rule of thumb in many cases. But there is something wrong with free expression for the sole purpose of spreading a hateful message, and there is something even more wrong with free expression with no possibility of accountability. Taking responsibility for—or at least ownership of—your opinion should be a prerequisite for sharing it. There is no place in our community for opinions that are so hateful that no one will publicly claim them.

Of course, there are certainly appropriate places for anonymity—journalism being one of them. Anonymous sources are key to the diffusion of sensitive yet reliable news. Furthermore, sharing one’s opinions anonymously is often the only way to safely speak truth to power. But if the point of UChicago’s dedication to free expression is the ability to engage in civil discourse, UChicago Secrets certainly undermines it.

Alexa Perlmutter is a first-year in the College.

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