Opinion

Gossipy college confession boards: how to break the addiction

Whether we log on to such gossip forums out of love, hate, entertainment, or pure fear, we implicitly sanction and perpetuate such discourse just by giving those kinds of sites the time of day.

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Gossip is nothing new. And using gossip to ruin reputations, sabotage friendships, break up couples, and destroy careers isn’t new either. Yet the degree to which gossip has come to dominate our lives, subsuming the role legitimate news used to play, is cause for concern.

Technological advancements and the advent of social media have given rise to citizen journalism. Anyone with a cellphone or a camera can now assume the role of journalist – anyplace, anytime, anywhere in the world – bypassing all traditional journalistic rules of conduct. There is no more journalistic authority, no means of ensuring authenticity, and absolutely no ethics police of any shape or form.

This democratization of journalism – though maximizing freedom of the press in many regards – also threatens the legitimacy of the media as a whole and can have detrimental consequences for those individuals reported in supposed “news” stories. What to report and what not to report is left up to personal judgment calls and individual moral compasses at best.

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In this Techno Age, what distinguishes The New York Times from the College Anonymous Confession Board (ACB)? While such a comparison may seem preposterous to many, the line between news, blogs, and anonymous online confession boards is becoming increasingly hazy.

A backstabbing remark said in private company can quickly transform from an unsolicited insult to a college confession board post to an Ivy Gate “news” story to the top hit on the Huffington Post. If journalism serves to uncover the truth, not perpetuate false accusations and embellished rumor mills, why and how, then, is this happening? Because we students are allowing it to happen.

College ACB is a spinoff of the former Juicy Campus, which was shut down in February 2009. Even though Matt Ivester, founder and CEO of Juicy Campus, struck a deal with Peter Frank, owner of College ACB, to redirect traffic from the Juicy Campus website to College ACB, Mr. Frank has sought to publicly distinguish itself from the notoriously vulgar Juicy Campus. In a press release, Frank referred to Juicy Campus as “a Website that fostered superficial interactions, often derogatory and needlessly crude.” In contrast, Frank considers College ACB to be “a higher level of discourse” dedicated to “actual discussion, not provoking salacious posts or personal attacks.”

Recent posts on Cornell’s College ACB board include “Best [body part] – who’s got it?” and “Which Freshman girls are blackballed from houses.” With dozens, sometimes hundreds of comments under each post, the quality, thought-provoking discussion one associates with an Ivy League university (and apparently a college confession board) is certainly questionable.

Though it is true that College ACB does not claim to be a news source, readers and comment-posters are treating the site as a news source more and more. It is because we buy into the game – both by posting comments, reading posts and talking about them – that College ACB has gained considerable influence. Whether we log on to such gossip forums out of love, hate, entertainment, or pure fear, we implicitly sanction and perpetuate such discourse just by giving those kinds of sites the time of day.

Regardless of your intentions, contributing to the half-a-million hits College ACB or Posh Society get each day makes you a “Gossip Girl” like the rest of them. It’s a disease, it’s contagious, and it’s addictive. Worse, it is self-destructive and undermines everything universities stand for.

Anonymous accusations are not facts. However, when we act and perceive gossip as fact, gossip takes on the properties of truth and its impact is far more serious than hurt feelings. Such malevolent gossip is scary and can have real consequences for people’s lives and careers. Historically, slander and libel have been viewed as serious offenses under American law. You can’t defame someone publicly – in speech or in writing – on a whim. Yet when total anonymity is possible, slander and libel become a lot more complicated.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act holds that website owners are not responsible for libel on their sites. If website owners are not held accountable and the culprit is anonymous, then who is liable? Unfortunately, it seems that the most common answer to this question is the victim. Some would go as far as to say that the victim is to blame and should have been smarter, more careful, and taken steps to avoid such accusations in the first place. While in the “real world,” this may be an unfortunate reality, it should not and does not have to be this way on college campuses.

In fact, it’s actually legal for schools to ban sites such as College ACB because they have control over the Internet system (whether this violates students’ rights, however, is another question). If the website operator is willing, posts can be traced back to the user’s ISP address, and a student could be held accountable for the “anonymous” defamatory comment he or she posted. While this is an extreme and unlikely scenario, it’s somewhat refreshing to know that total anonymity is not as easy or bulletproof as it’s made out to be.

Ultimately, though, controlling gossip is not the responsibility of university administrations. If students want to gossip, they will gossip and continue to find more public and more degrading ways to expose it. Banning a website will not stop the gossip mill. It’s up to individual students to take the initiative and start treating gossip for what it is – catty hearsay with no legitimate value. Gossip is only as powerful as we let it be. If we ignore it, first and foremost by stopping traffic to sites like College ACB, gossip will begin to lose its weight and just maybe, the truth will be revered.

Carolyn Witte is a sophomore at Cornell University. She writes a column for the Cornell Daily Sun, where this was originally published.

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