Do You Have a Confession?

April 30th, 2014
Little boy with finger on lips

Many of you have probably seen the university “Confessions” pages popping up all over Facebook over the past couple of years. Your university may even have one. They are pages that are usually run by students (I don’t know of one run by an administrator but would be fascinated to find out if anyone else does) to which students can send in posts that will be published anonymously by the page moderator(s). The moderators set the rules for the page – sometimes they won’t post specific names or identifying information, sometimes they will.

Recently, a student I know had a very negative experience with one of these sites. Someone posted (anonymously, of course) that he had a gun in his room. Despite his protestations, residential life proceeded to search his room and ransack it in the process, but ultimately they found nothing.

Because I’ve worked in residential life before, I can see this situation from both sides. Obviously, if someone told me that one of the students living on campus had a gun, I would feel a responsibility to ensure the safety of them and the other students on campus by doing a search of the room (or more likely, having the police do a search). On the other hand, how is a student supposed to protect themselves from an anonymous posting such as this one?

There are a few things every university can do in regards to these Confessions pages – or any other type of anonymous posting website.

First, make sure that the site is not using any university branding or trademarked language. Use of university branding or trademarks lends credibility to the page, as well as increasing the liability of the university, as a student could argue that they should be aware of this page or site. Should the page administrator not be willing to remove any university branding or trademarked material, you can contact Facebook directly to have the page removed. Your marketing and communications office on campus – or possibly your athletics office depending on what branding they are using – should be able to advise on whether the information on the page is being used legally or not.

If you haven’t already, this would be a good time to establish some standards for how you are going to use information found online to follow up on student disciplinary issues. Will you only follow up on reports that endanger health and human safety – like the example above – or will you follow up on all reports of any disciplinary infraction? Will you have someone policing Facebook and other social media sites regularly? Or will you just confront reports that come across your desk because someone else brought them to your attention? Will you require any corroborating proof that a student is violating policy, or will an anonymous post be substantial enough? These are all things to consider when developing standards for the role social media will play in your disciplinary process, but the important thing is that these standards should provide a level of consistency to that process. In other words, if a student asks, “Why me?” would you be able to explain your rationale every time?

Finally, develop an education plan for informing your students of these standards. I advised the student above to ask the residential life office how he could protect himself from these anonymous posts in the future. The real answer is that he may not be able to – with a post of that seriousness, residential life may always feel compelled to do a search of a student’s room. But they should be able to inform him of their standards for assessing posts and deciding when to take action on them so he can be prepared for it in the future.

Has your institution had experience with a “confessions” page or other type of similar anonymous posting? What have you done to protect your students and your institution?