After five reports concerning online harassment were filed last spring, the Bias Related Incident Reporting System is adjusting to respond more effectively to incidents on outlets such as the “Georgetown Confessions” Facebook page.
The initiative is the result of a partnership between the the Bias Reporting system and University Information Services after administrators were concerned by an increasing number of bias reports directly related to online activity.
Under the new system, the committee responsible for the Bias Related Incident Reporting System will review reports regarding posts on an online platform. If the post in question meets certain criteria, UISwill make a request to Facebook advocating removal of the post.
Criteria for removal include a comment with identifying information, a comment or post threatening harm against an individual or group and a comment or post that includes language with the potential to incite violence.
“Some of us on the staff were just generally concerned about some of the things that were appearing in the online forums,” CMEA Director and Chair of the Bias Reporting Team Dennis Williams said. “It’s not that we have any authority to do something, but we do have some steps that we can take to look at individual cases of what might constitute online harassment.”
Cyberspace is not an area that has traditionally been under the auspices of the Bias Related Report System.
“It is only recently that we started getting complaints that deal with social media,” Williams said. “Part of the problem is anonymity. … So many of the micro-aggressions are anonymous.”
While the committee now has the ability to review reports based on the sites, Williams emphasized that the Bias Related Report System will not take on a paternalistic function.
“It is a passive system in the sense that we receive reports,” Williams said. “The whole process is predicated on the notion of offense. If no one is offended, there is no report. We don’t go out looking for bad stuff to happen.”
Williams hopes that the new initiative will have the ability to clean cyberspace of hateful speech against Georgetown community members.
“It’s the cyberspace equivalent of getting someone to come and whitewash an ethnic slur off of the wall,” Williams said.
The sophomore female who operates Georgetown Confessions, who wished not to be named to preserve the anonymity of the platform, noted that the page is merely a forum for students to express their opinions to a wider audience. The Facebook page has seen revived interest this fall,
“Confessions is just another way for students to share their emotions without judgment, and it is good that they have this medium,” said the page’s moderator, who wished to remain anonymous. “We censor posts that single people out unless it is a compliment.”
However some students think that the site, and others like it, is largely detrimental to the Georgetown community.
Black House Resident Director Aya Waller-Bey (COL ’14) acknowledged the importance of general freedom of speech but felt that the targeted audience of such pages merited monitoring.
“People are entitled to free speech and Facebook is a medium … that has nothing to do with Georgetown. However, Confessions was started by Georgetown students and targeted at Georgetown students,” Waller-Bey said. “If posts are overtly racist and demonstrate bias, Georgetown should protect its students and advocate pluralism and the protection of all identities.”
Waller-Bey has reported bias incidents unrelated to Confessions in the past, but she encouraged students to report bias in Confessions’ posts now that it is clear the university has such agency. She cited a recent post that criticized certain groups for not conforming to what the poster considered mainstream campus culture, attracting accusations of racism. The post amassed much negative attention, including 30 shares.
“Posts are hurtful,” Waller-Bey said. “It was very offensive. Students should be able to say ‘I’m offended as a Georgetown student, and something needs to be done on my behalf.’”
Confessions, meanwhile, finds the recent efforts both overambitious and unnecessary.
“We think it is overkill. Confessions has 2,000 likes, and it is just not worth that much trouble. We don’t think anyone is going to harm themselves because of an anonymous post on Facebook,” the Confessions administrator said.
The general student populace takes a more cautious approach.
“People have their opinions, but when it hits so close to home, I’m shocked that people have the guts to actually say things like that. I would want them to take it off,” Jocelyn Hernandez (MSB ’14) said.
As secretary of diversity affairs for the Georgetown University Student Association, Minjung Kang (SFS ’15) is familiar with Confessions, which features heavily in conversation within diversity groups.
“We had this discussion at a [Students of Color Alliance] meeting about some posts that we saw on Confessions we found racist, but there was no way for us to take them down,” Kang said. “We don’t know the people who maintain the page and we can’t hold them accountable. I think it’s a good policy.”
While Confessions is the largest of such sites at Georgetown, it is not the only site toward which the initiative is directed. Georgetown Insults, with 1,445 friends on Facebook, is also on the team’s radar.
Williams emphasized that students themselves have largely taken on the responsibility of self-monitoring these forums.
“Having the opportunity to express one’s opinion is a good thing,” Williams said. “One of the things that I think is good about these forums is students tend to do a good job about policing each other.”
Williams noted that online platforms often reflect reality.
“It’s not unlike a large, drunken party. When people drink, they tend to speak their minds more freely and are more prone to giving offense,” Williams said. “You’re able to talk back to people and they don’t know who you are, so they can’t punch you in the mouth.”