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Confession Ethics

March 18, 2014
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Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

Do you want to hear a secret? Can I confess something to you?

It’s a rare person who can turn down such an opportunity, the chance to hear a deep, dark and — one can only hope — excruciatingly intimate revelation.

Print publishers have capitalized on this aspect of human nature. Cosmopolitan magazine promises that “readers share their most shocking stories and steamiest secrets” on its “Cosmo Confession” page, and Seventeen’s regular feature “Traumarama” says, “You’ll laugh out loud (or cringe).” In a way, “Dear Abby” advice columns, where readers divulge personal problems under pseudonyms, are cut from the same cloth.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Internet has become a mecca for people who don’t want to keep their private thoughts to themselves.

Consider the PostSecret website, which exhibits anonymous secrets mailed on artsy homemade postcards. On March 9: “My mother only sleeps with married men. I’ve lost all respect for her.” “Telling people I’m an atheist is going to be WAY harder than coming out ever was!” and “I make both our lunches every day—But I only wash my apple!” Since 2005, the project has racked up millions of secrets, even more site visits, five books and speaking tours for its creator and curator, Frank Warren.

Despite some heavy secrets throughout the years — about suicide, abortion, betrayals, you name it — the project has avoided major controversy, and there’s no public evidence of lawsuits.

For a brief time, Warren opened a comments feature on the website, but he ultimately decided to disable it. He explained his reasoning in an interview with Mediabistro:

“Some of [the comments] were very harsh and judgmental, and I didn’t want people to feel like they couldn’t trust me with their secrets, that the place wouldn’t be safe any longer,” Warren said. A short-lived PostSecret app had the same fate, for the same reason.

Warren’s philosophy about comments is not universal. Especially when those pages reside on social networks, like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, where comments are a defining part of the user experience.

Confession websites are popular, in particular, among college communities. A PostSecret could come from anyone in the world. But on a college confessions page, the scandalous disclosures come from people that share your location and experiences, people you might know. It’s an alluring premise.

Usually, enterprising (or maybe just nosy) students create these pages on social networks. They share a link to a Google form or a survey tool. Confessors use that link to submit their messages anonymously for the site administrator to post, thus preserving their identities. The administrator might publish every message received or selectively decide which ones to show the public.

I searched for my alma mater’s confessions page on Facebook and found a wide variety of secrets spilled in the last month. There are comical laments about campus amenities (“I find it extremely frustrating that they have grapefruit in the dining hall and no serrated spoons for it”), tender pleas to humanity (“Somebody love me”), vehement statements about ethnic conflict (“All the Jews on this campus who are fighting for human rights in support of Israel need to stop being naive”) and some posts not technically confessions at all, but instead frank words of encouragement (“ya’ll should be your goddamn fabulous selves”). Many covered stereotypical college topics: brief anecdotes about sex, partying, smoking pot; complaints about classes, professors and roommates. Some funny, others sad and many vulgar.

A site’s middleman — that administrator — might censor revelations that are obviously made up, or ones that are particularly derogatory. But that task is subjective. There’s no doubt that some confessions, especially ones that touch on topics like gender, race and ethnicity, will offend lots of readers. Also potentially contentious are the comments. Interestingly, on a site like Facebook, users can’t comment anonymously; their name is attached to whatever they say. But that doesn’t always make people censor their responses to confessions.

Media outlets have suggested that these sites can be venues for hurtful discourse and even cyberbullying, causes for concern for university officials. Colleges can block them from appearing on campus networks, but they can’t delete third-party websites or stop students from accessing them off the school network.

However, when minors are involved, as with high school confessions pages, schools and parents have more control. Manyanti-bullying laws cover cyberbullying (sometimes phrased as “electronic” forms of bullying), usually when it targets juveniles in or around schools. These laws can give administrators grounds to ask social networks to control or removeconfession sites.

According to its community standards page, Facebook will “take action on all reports of abusive behavior directed at private individuals.” The company also says it will “remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety.”

But in general, the First Amendment protects students contributing to confession pages. Colleges may worry that these websites are bad for their brand, but they can’t stop students from writing about their escapades and controversial opinions in the public sphere.

Contributors do have to be careful about identifying others in their confessions or comments. It’s a guideline many of these sites establish outright. It’s a smart move from a legal standpoint.

Say someone reveals a secret about a specific person. If the statement can be proven defamatory — false and damaging to one’s reputation — then the victim could sue for libel. Even if the statement is technically true, if the identified person interprets it as verbal assault, harassment or intimidation, they can pursue legal action against the confessor.

A site administrator’s promise to preserve anonymity is not always a guarantee in these scenarios. Even through anonymous submission forms, investigators can sometimes trace IP addresses.

Madison Confessions, which claims to be the “largest college confessions page in the nation” explains this explicitly. Its submission form outlines several rules for its University of Wisconsin-Madison users, including “Never state specific names” and “Don’t confess about anything extremely illegal.”

The website doesn’t live on a social network; it’s privately hosted, with a lengthy terms of use agreement. Among other provisions, the contract states, “We reserve the right to disclose any information in our possession if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary.”

It’s interesting to consider hypotheticals — defamation lawsuits, murder admissions — but the vast majority of submissions don’t enter such territory. Perhaps the solution to more common quandaries, such as outcry over crude secrets and offensive comments, is to ignore the sites. People who are oversensitive shouldn’t visit the sites. College administrators shouldn’t give them attention and, by extension, press coverage. It’s an over-simplified resolution, but one that could subdue many critics.

Warren, of PostSecret, has said that confessing secrets can be therapeutic; it’s a way to connect people. That connection between writers and readers is a point for ethical consideration itself. Will college students with literally life-altering confessions, like thoughts of suicide or stories about abuse, turn to these websites for a cure to their anguish? Will support from classmates through comments provide the help these confessors really need?

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