Tufts Secrets sparks debates about online anonymity

The Tufts Secrets Facebook page, pictured here, allows Tufts students to post anonymously, an ability that has led some to debate the usefulness and helpfulness of this page.

From ASKfm to Yik Yak, anonymous sharing platforms seem to inevitably descend into baiting, bullying and bitterness. Nevertheless, they continue to be reimagined and reintroduced, aiming to create positive spaces for unfiltered exchanges. “Tufts Secrets,” a Facebook page created this fall by an incoming graduate student, proves little different.

The page’s goal is to make people feel they are part of a tangible community and find people they could relate to, according to its creator who requested to remain anonymous. Despite well-meaning intentions, the page’s atmosphere quickly turned sour. The page administrator tracked the descent.

“The other secrets pages I’ve looked at aren’t nearly as politically charged as this one,” the administrator told the Daily in an electronic message. “But one or two controversial posts started a chain reaction and it expanded from there. And I, in an often misguided quest to promote free speech, still posted them.”

James Boehme, a first-year who follows the page, weighed in on its commitment to free speech.

“I would like to see the admin maybe enforce a bit more,” he said. “I would be worried that would lead to an outcry of people saying it’s overly censored … but I would like to see vetting.”

The administrator defended his decision to post every secret received.

“If I silenced them it wouldn’t change anything, but letting them speak opened up at least some kind of dialogue,” he said. “These disagreements can be heated, but it’s the best way to bring about change.”

The controversy on the page surrounding free speech and political intolerance, left unchecked since the page’s inception, continued to escalate until secret #390, when it could no longer be easily ignored. Among 331 words, the anonymous poster wrote, “It doesn’t even have to be Nazis, any race capable of taking over the world should do it. All races are not equal and anyone who thinks so is lying to themselves.”

The post faced immediate opposition from commenters with varying intents. Boehme, who commented to reason with the poster, was eager to respond to the post.

“I felt this immediate urge to disagree and condemn it,” he said. “I hope the poster saw because I’d really love to start a dialogue.”

Others viewed debating with the poster as futile. Edwin Jain, a junior who commented with specific objections, felt that his comments were more for the ambivalent readers of the post.

“My purpose wasn’t to engage the poster, it’s to engage people who are looking at the post and are slightly appalled, but not really understanding the problem with the logic,” he said. “My intention is not to try to convert people who are borderline Nazis. That’s a waste of time.”

On the differing comments, the administrator thought that impactful ways to respond to disquieting posts exist.

“I don’t think generic ‘shocked’ responses are particularly useful,” he said. “If you dismiss someone’s views as inherently terrible and wrong (even if they are), without explaining why, it doesn’t really help anything.”

In response, Ria Mazumdar, who commented a simple denunciation, explained her thoughts on why discourse on the page would be ineffective.

“The post was a reflection of the anonymity, and the [original poster] decided to use the page as an avenue for a socially unacceptable viewpoint,” Mazumdar, a junior, told the Daily in an electronic message. “That lack of transparency puts no obligation on me to persuade or have a thoughtful discussion with this person and does not limit my right to express a superficial reaction. Moreover, I don’t believe a Facebook retort would sway anyone’s core political beliefs.”

Jain, however, saw anonymity as beside the point.

“This is a common thing with thinking people are going to act terribly if they’re anonymous, and it’s more like people are going to act terribly if incentivized to act terribly,” he said. “It’s not getting rid of anonymous internet spaces we need to be worried about, it’s about actually changing the way power works.”

Boehme promoted in-person dialogue as a way to hold people accountable for their opinions and stated that Tufts Secrets‘ anonymity didn’t offer a productive conversation. However, he argued, if better utilized, anonymity could be helpful.

“Someone who is LGBTQIA needing a safe space for coming out — that could be a good way as a first step to have that anonymity, just post it and say, ‘This is what I feel,’” he said.

In spite of potential page benefits, Mazumdar does not believe posts like the secret in question bring about healthy discussion.

“I don’t think the existence of the page in general contributes any productive discourse whatsoever,” she said.

Boehme saw the page as a microcosm of campus.

“At Tufts there’s been a lot of call-out culture … which I don’t think is very helpful,” he said. “In that sense it’s been representative of the Tufts feel.”

The administrator, however, urged perspective.

“The page is only around 700 likes/followers … a small sample size of the entire Tufts community,” he said. “[I] hope people realize that and don’t lose faith in the entire school or a demographic based on a few ‘unsavory’ secrets. Also, of those 700-ish, the vast majority are kind and decent people always willing to lend a helping hand to fellow students going through a rough time.”

To refocus the page, the administrator instituted a theme week. Each day he accepted secrets only on a specific topic, like sadness, happiness or anecdotes.

“I’m hoping this’ll give people an idea of how positive and genuine the page can be when it isn’t bogged down by negative stuff,” he said. “People will still be free to submit anything they’d like when the week’s up, but hopefully there’ll be more positive stuff in the future.”

Jain viewed the theme week as attempting to ignore deeper problems.

“I don’t think it changes much … A negative peace is everyone stops talking about the crap that goes on, and I think that’s what this is about,” he said. “Then there’s a positive peace, which is, ‘Let’s actually change that, so we don’t have this unrest.’”

The theme week ended on Oct. 14 with a post from Tufts Secrets at exactly midnight stating, “So yeah now let’s going back to any and all secrets you’d like to submit! Remove that filter! Go off script! Dance like no one’s watching!!”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify Ria Mazumdar’s comments on whether certain Tufts Secrets posts create healthy discourse.