Sidechat has become a forum for dangerous, anonymous discourse ever since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Furthermore, physical anonymity has been widespread at recent protests at Tufts — protestors have worn surgical masks or other face coverings to hide their identity. The recent fighting instigated by Hamas has exposed the darker side of anonymity, including the unchecked spread of hate speech and inaccurate reporting, as well as pro-Palestine rallies featuring protestors with their faces covered.
Anonymous harmful content is by no means a new concept. The recent prevalence of fake news has been facilitated by internet anonymity, as anyone can publish content and claim that it’s true without accountability. The key to understanding why fake news seems to be everywhere is that “1% of individuals are responsible for 80% of fake news sharing.” On the internet, content can spread like wildfire, a problem that is particularly dangerous in the world of fake news since, according to 2016 Pew Research data, 62% of American adults get at least some of their news from social media. A majority of these Americans visit only one site. Most often this site is Facebook, which is particularly worrying as it is the platform with the most occurrences of misinformation.
Hateful posts sent out into the ether, when anonymous, take root easily. Stripping away one’s identity when commenting about the annihilation of Israel is extremely dangerous, as it removes any possibility of accountability. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Anonymity plays a role in enabling online hate, harassment, and misinformation.” This has been tremendously evident during the past six weeks. For example, according to the Associated Press, “[Social media] users have shared false claims that a top Israeli commander had been kidnapped, circulated a false video imitating a BBC News report, and pushed old and unrelated clips of Russian President Vladimir Putin with inaccurate English captions.”
Harmful rhetoric against Israel and Jews on anonymous apps like Sidechat seems to have shot up following the events of Oct. 7, making Jewish students at Tufts feel increasingly worried about their safety on campus. I was troubled by posts on Sidechat such as this one from Nov. 10: “the [Coalition for Palestinian Liberation] protest … was not a big deal at all i’m sorry but … [Tufts Friends of Israel] are victimizing themselves.” This individual clearly cannot see the bigger picture: The protestors were chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase that, according to the American Jewish Committee, has been used as a “rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers,” including “Hamas, which called for Israel’s destruction in its original governing charter in 1988.” In other words, this phrase calls for the eradication of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants. Jewish students’ fear shouldn’t be invalidated by anonymous Sidechat posts.
Recent events have shown how anonymity can be a detriment to society. Some who took part in the Coalition for Palestinian Liberation’s campus center sit-in wore masks to conceal their identity, an act of pure cowardice. The Tufts Revolutionary Marxist Students published their op-ed, which shared their support of “the Palestinian mass-led overthrow of the colonial Zionist Israeli apartheid state,” under the group’s name, opting to not expose each writer’s identity and own up to supporting the eradication of Israel. These students are using anonymity as a smoke screen for hate speech and will make it difficult for Tufts to hold them accountable for violating university policies. Conversely, I publish articles in the Tufts Daily with my name attached, openly voicing my conservative and pro-Israel views with constant fear of reprisal.
Two things need to happen: First, students who wish to contribute to the Tufts Daily should only receive anonymity if speaking out would actively put their lives in danger. They shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind the label of a student organization. It’s time we stop catering to people’s reputations. Second, students shouldn’t fear being ostracized for voicing views that might be considered unpopular. That is not to say that hate speech should be tolerated. Respectful discourse needs to be prioritized on this campus.
Sidechat and similar platforms have created an environment where hate speech, misinformation and disinformation fester. There is no way to assess who is saying what, and no way to guarantee that what people are reading is the truth. In my opinion, Sidechat should be much more heavily monitored, especially when it comes to comments related to geopolitics. This wouldn’t only help maintain the safety of the Jewish students on campus, but also prevent students from spreading false information about the current conflict. Especially since the Tufts administration has been mostly radio silent since Hamas’ initial attack, it would be wise to temporarily put a stop to lies being perpetuated on social media. While there is a website devoted to providing information and resources about the current conflict, Tufts needs to be more proactive in condemning and preventing hate speech. Calling out hate speech and protecting Jewish students should be par for the course.