I knew something was very wrong on that harrowing night Dec. 5 when I got a message from my Overheard at UC Berkeley moderator group chat. I knew things were about to become even worse when I saw that a 30-second Snapchat of a UC Berkeley student spewing some extremely vile and deplorable statements about Black people, women and the LGBTQ+ community had been posted to the page. All I could do was stare in disbelief as a second person egged on the racist individual as he talked.
Although I was truly disgusted by the video itself, I was also disturbed by the caption the poster had added. It gave the student’s name, the dorm they lived in and their age (which was only 16). This, I realized, was a case of doxxing: publishing private and identifying information about a person on the internet. I feared Facebook would delete the whole group for such an offense. Besides that, the video was hate speech, which is explicitly against Facebook’s rules. I realized the huge threat that the post posed, and I deleted it immediately. That was my first mistake.
The video was reposted within minutes. This time, the doxxing part was excluded, but the new post included a message calling out the moderators of Overheard for being anti-Black people. This was such a serious accusation that it seriously rattled me. I added some comments stating the reasons why the moderators had deleted the original post. I made it clear that the post was still a risk, but we would allow this doxxing-free version to remain up. Despite this, commenters claimed that I was siding with racists and trying to cover my tracks. I completely understood their righteous fury at the student in the video and just wanted them to know that I was on their side. But the more I explained, the angrier they got.
I decided to privately message the account who posted the video to resolve the matter. They were adamant that it had been wrong to delete the post, that the racist student deserved to be publicly outed, that I should have at least messaged them before deleting it.
I went back and forth with them, arguing from all angles, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. In their eyes — and, I feared, in the public’s eyes — I was now racist. And while I had been arguing, I had made my second big mistake. In all the panic, I had forgotten to alert all my fellow moderators to this rapidly developing catastrophe.
An unaware moderator, disturbed by the fact that a post was calling the moderators racist, deleted the video for the second time. For good measure, they banned the poster from the group. Once the poster noticed this, they were understandably furious. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing at the possible ensuing consequences.
I quickly worked to re-add them to the group and told them it was OK to repost the video, apologizing for the mishap. Another member of the group helpfully posted it themselves, with yet another message criticizing moderators for being racist and protecting racists. A third person made a post that called out the UC Berkeley administration and the moderators of Overheard alike: “Stop being complicit.” By now, I was shaking and almost crying from sheer stress. Once I realized I was having a panic attack, I called my mom.
I told my mom the whole story from the beginning, letting it all out. I was just so frustrated that nobody seemed to understand my perspective or believe my word. Being so thoroughly misunderstood feels like your brain is short-circuiting. On top of that, I was very angry at myself for how careless I had been. But my mom was understanding, and I began to calm down. After that, I called my girlfriend, and she persuaded me to go to sleep and deal with it in the morning, placating my nerves.
I awoke to discover that the posts had been deleted by Facebook for containing hate speech. In response, I wrote a long post explaining what had transpired. In it, I condemned the student’s rant, apologized for my two mistakes and explained that Facebook (not the moderators) had deleted the post for good. To my relief, the public’s response was almost entirely positive. Though some people still believed it was all just excuses, I knew that I had done what I could.
The student deserved a punishment, but in my heart, I still believe that it’s wrong to doxx a minor. Perhaps that opinion comes from a place of privilege. In any case, I learned it is all too easy to do the wrong thing when you panic. I was so laser-focused on preserving my own image and interests that I did damage to both, and in the process, I didn’t help marginalized students either. Surprisingly, Facebook later reversed its decision and restored the post, but it didn’t really make anything better. At least now, I’ll never forget to think twice before I hit “delete.”
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].