Five questions answered about reporting on your local confession site

Confessions sites are popping up in teen communities all over the country. There is a Twitter feed called yococonfessions, targeting the community of York County, Pa. A post about a weapon on the Facebook page, Amherst Regional High School Confessions, closed the high school for a day.

Sometimes confessions sites disrupt schools, making it likely that local reporters will pay attention. Here are five questions to consider when writing about confession sites:

1. What are confession pages?

Confession pages can be standalone blogs or they can pop up in any environment, including Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. Modeled on PostSecret, readers submit a secret and the moderators post them. PostSecret’s success is rooted in the novelty of the confessions, which run the gamut from shocking (I have 4 kids by 3 different men. My biggest fear is that when my kids get older they will realize what a slut their mom was) to charming (While showering, I imagine my kids’ bath toys talk to me.) The smartphone app Whisper capitalizes on the same concept in the mobile setting.

2. Why are they disruptive in middle schools and high schools?

Among teenagers, they are often used to spread mean rumors and incite drama. Sometimes moderators will post a confession that compels adults to intervene, usually because it poses a safety threat or can be viewed as harassment.

3. Why don’t Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies shut these down?

Because they are not responsible for the content published by those who use their platforms. The Communications Decency Act provides immunity to online service providers, like blogs, Facebook and Twitter, protecting these sites from liability for content published by its users.

Still, both Facebook and Twitter provide “report abuse” functions for reporting content that violates the terms of use.

Facebook’s “Community Standards” describes balancing free expression with community safety, citing threats of violence, bullying and harassment as areas where it might intervene. “We remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety,” the policy states.

Twitter’s Help Center  provides a process for targets of online abuse to consider, including guidance in determining what behavior should be reported, and advice that threats should be taken seriously and reported.

Still, reporters often come up empty-handed when trying to get responses from Twitter and Facebook on reported abuse.

4. When and how does law enforcement get involved?

When there is a public safety threat, police turn to social media for information. Police departments regularly search Facebook and Twitter to track down anonymous statements. In some instances, police departments have requested that Facebook shut certain pages down. Law enforcement can subpoena records from a social platform to determine who is moderating the site.

5. What common mistakes do journalists make when covering confession sites?

  • Alarmism is common. Some stories demonize technology and suggest the sites are new, when in fact PostSecret has been around since 2005 and most colleges have had confession sites for years. On the other end of the spectrum, dismissing threats of violence can have serious consequences. Seek out sources, including sociologists, cops and teenagers themselves to put statements in perspective and provide context.

  • Excluding teen psychology experts. Much (not all) of the confessions and communications from teenagers on these sites represent fairly normal, mundane conversations that teenagers have, including raunchy humor and mean-spirited accusations. In the past these exchanges occurred outside the gaze of adults. Creating a digital record makes them more accessible to parents and teachers. Confessions sites have sparked community conversations about media literacy,  giving adults and teens an opportunity to explore social media literacy and the emotional residue of teen life.

  • Going straight to the story about bullies. Bullying is a big buzzword these days that gets a lot of traffic. Yet, experts define bullying as repeated behavior between two or more actors involving a power imbalance. In most cases it’s impossible to know, based on the anonymous communications, if a post on social media is part of a pattern of bullying. You’d have to do more reporting. That might include tracking down likely victims and interviewing friends and other people within a particular peer group. That kind of reporting is time-intensive. Skipping it will lead to shallow stories with the potential to misinform.

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