The worst mistake

Confessions of a moderator

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I should have known what I was getting into when I founded Confessions.

Confessions from UC Berkeley was founded in the dead center of summer: July 2018. As such, the page immediately got some submissions, but not that many. The page was new, of course, and didn’t have many followers yet. I realized not everyone will trust a brand new page to keep their deepest secrets anonymous. Because of all these factors, the first few confessions were lighthearted. There were a lot of jokes and some potentially fake stories, and the average length of a submission was that of a tweet. As the person responsible for choosing posts, my job was easy — so far.

But the page grew and grew. With the new semester (and the freshman class that came with it), the page now had dozens of submissions coming in each day. And, as it became clear that Confessions was really and truly anonymous, people were starting to trust the page more. But with the increased popularity and trustworthiness of the page, my job only got harder and more stressful. It wasn’t long before I began receiving confessions about the one big subject that I should have anticipated.

Sexual assault is an epidemic, especially in colleges. This is reflected, sometimes painfully so, in the submissions that Confessions receives. These kinds of confessions vary, but there is a common thread that many of them share. The people writing these confessions, all too often, don’t feel as though they can go to the authorities. After all, if they could, they might not need to write about their experiences on a Facebook page. Sometimes, they even describe the authorities being unhelpful when approached.

In the early days of the page, about January 2019, we received a submission describing in detail a sexual assault that allegedly occurred at a retreat for a UC Berkeley student organization. The submission named the organization several times, but not the assaulter. The Confessions team thought deeply about whether or not to post it. We eventually decided that we would censor the organization’s name to avoid libel and post it for the sake of giving the submitter a voice and bringing awareness to the issue. But due to my own stupid and lazy mistake, we failed to censor one of the instances of the name. The post was published before we realized the mistake, and I felt absolutely terrified.

The post immediately caused an uproar. Some comments simply pointed out the botched censor job, some called for the accused to be named publicly and some were very angry at the team for posting such a specific accusation. For me, this was a total worst-case scenario — the worst mistake I had made so far. Not only had the page committed a huge public error, but it had been entirely my fault. I finished the incomplete censorship, but it was too late. It was one of the most stressful moments of my life, but it was about to get worse. 

I received some private messages from a friend about the accused student. (Apparently, including  the organization’s name had made the post specific enough to refer to only one person.) They claimed they knew who the accuser was and that they had reason to believe that her accusations were completely false. Though I explained that I had not meant to publish the organization’s name, she accused me of leaving it in on purpose. I explained that I had thought it anti-feminist to refuse to believe women about sexual assault, and she responded that it was highly offensive for me to say that to someone who had suffered from the same thing herself.

As an admin, I had been accused of being dishonest before, but this one hit much harder. I prided myself in running Confessions with integrity, so to be accused of lacking integrity in that way was painful. But I also knew that if the accusation really was false, the accused was feeling a lot more pain than I was. I just couldn’t shake the thought that it might have been nothing more than an attempt to slander an innocent person. Even though I know that false accusations are very rare, the reality of potentially ruining someone’s life filled me with dread. That moment was the first time I ever regretted starting Confessions. 

I soon received a submission purporting to contain the other side of the story. More than anything, it encouraged people to not automatically believe everything they read on Confessions. Frankly, I agree with that sentiment, and I wanted to minimize the damage that I had potentially done, so I posted it. To this day, I don’t know which side was telling the truth or what happened to the people involved, and I don’t think I ever will. I just hope to god that somehow the truth won out in the end. It is easy to start to grow numb after you’ve read 15,000 submissions, but my memories of that day always remind me how real the consequences of my decisions can be.

Spencer Hill writes the Friday column on being a moderator of Overheard at UC Berkeley and Confessions from UC Berkeley. Contact him at [email protected].