Every so often a website captures the public imagination, and the latest website to have its 5 minutes of fame at the ANU is the Facebook page called ANU Confessions. The idea behind the page is not a new one, but it has resonated throughout the ANU student community. The page offers an entertaining and sometimes heart-warming look into the thoughts and feelings of the people who (supposedly) make up the ANU community. Endless stories about sexual exploits, the occasional phantom poop, and the stresses that come with student life all feature on the page. But like any other form of anonymous expression, ANU Confessions has featured posts displaying racism, homophobia, and sexism. While these comments are generally met with criticism by the ANU community and are in the minority, the fact remains that the page is a platform for messages that can lead to people feeling unsafe on campus, discriminated against, and persecuted by the greater student body. Does ANU Confessions share the responsibility for giving voice to messages of malice, or does a simple disclaimer let them wipe their hands clean?
Unlike the everyday Twitter and Facebook abuse that is intended to be offensive, ANU Confessions was not created to spread offensive messages. It just happened to do so. When contacted via Facebook, the reply from ANU Confessions stressed the point that they “believe that it is the community who should have a say on these people… it’s like trial by jury”, and that these messages deserve to be heard as they are a part of our society. They also outlined that they “do not believe in censorship” and that the page was created to be an “objective third party… [and] a direct reflection of the culture that is at ANU”.
While the page may have been started with noble intent, it seems inevitable that there would be a negative reaction from the student body to some messages. According to ANU Confessions, when they started the page they published almost every single confession submitted, and the only ones not published were instances where people were specified by name. This approach led to a public backlash and ANU Confessions attributed this reaction not just to the content of their messages, but also to the mistaken belief that they endorsed the content in all the confessions posted. Over time, the approach by ANU Confessions towards which posts are published has changed. Despite the original intention of the page, ANU Confessions confirmed to Woroni that due to public backlash they have “ceased posting confessions that are threatening and highly offensive”, but say that there are no confessions they wish they hadn’t published.
The issue of accountability and abuse on the Internet is an issue that has no clear resolution. As debate raged in local national media in late 2012 about how to stop Twitter trolls from spreading abuse and to hold them accountable for their reaction, there seemed to be little anybody could do apart from just ignoring them. Around the world, there have been growing calls for online accountability in the face of increasing reports of cyber-bulling, trolls and abuse.
But not all discussion about online behaviour calls for greater accountability. Earlier this year a German Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Theo Weichert, threatened to fine Facebook for not allowing anonymous accounts as this was in breach of German law. The conflict between anonymity and accountability is made quite complex due to not only the ethical and philosophical arguments involved, but also due to the legal complexities of applying existing laws to the fast-changing environment of the internet. Despite most people being opposed to abuse on the Internet, the likelihood of this being halted any time soon is slim-to-nil.
Despite ANU Confessions receiving criticism from individuals about the messages it publishes, it appears that the student community rejects the opinions behind many of the offensive messages posted. Debate is frequent on controversial topics, and offensive messages are often followed by condemnation or ignored. While ANU Confessions has stated that it will start censoring offensive posts, perhaps there’s value letting one or two slip through, if for no other reason than to be reassured that the majority of people at ANU won’t stand for the offensive views of a vocal few.