College students use Sidechat frequently, but colleges are hesitant to embrace the platform.

College students enjoy using social media, with one particular app catching their attention – Sidechat. This platform allows them to engage in anonymous gossip surrounding the latest campus happenings by simply providing their school email address.

However, colleges hold a less favorable view of Sidechat, and members of Congress are growing increasingly concerned about its content.

Serving as a virtual hub for college students nationwide to express their opinions on various topics, Sidechat has become a focal point in the House education committee’s investigations into antisemitism at select institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

Recently, the House committee subpoenaed Harvard, marking the first time it has compelled a university to produce such records. Sidechat played a significant role in this request, with lawmakers mandating the collection of antisemitic posts on the social media platform.

Read more:Harvard, under fire for campus antisemitism, hit with subpoenas in House GOP probe

Harvard administrators and the Anti-Defamation League met with Sidechat executives separately in the past months, urging the company to take action against hateful content amid campus tensions surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Read more:Israel-Hamas war stirs free-speech battles at college campuses across US

Assuring steps to address the issue, Sidechat responded to the House subpoena by limiting app access to undergraduates exclusively at Harvard and ensuring strict enforcement of content moderation guidelines.

This controversy has highlighted the influential role of the platform, which has largely avoided scrutiny since its inception about two years ago. The app’s impact in facilitating hate speech on college campuses has prompted some school administrators to take a more proactive approach in monitoring its usage.

This phenomenon raises broader questions around the accountability of students on an anonymous platform and the responsibility of colleges to prevent virtual violations of campus policies. The extent of the app’s anonymity and the ability of universities to monitor student activities also come into question.

Although lawmakers in Washington have not pressured the social media company as they did with university presidents, it is evident that some congressional members are displeased with the situation, attributing blame to schools for permitting hateful posts.

“The use of Sidechat on college campuses allows individuals to post antisemitic hate anonymously,” stated Nick Barley, a spokesperson for the GOP-led House education committee.

In correspondence with USA TODAY, Sidechat cofounder Sebastian Gil stated that the company employs 30 content moderators who work around the clock to review posts. Accounts face immediate suspension and banning for any violation of the platform’s community guidelines, particularly those pertaining to hate speech.

Despite ongoing scrutiny, the company has yet to disclose user information to Congress or universities, even when discriminatory posts have caused complications.

“We acknowledge the challenging environment on campuses and are committed to maintaining a safe space on Sidechat,” reiterated the app’s cofounder.

What is Sidechat? 

Historically, college campuses have been breeding grounds for popular social media platforms. Notably, Facebook emerged at Harvard as a means of student interaction on the online frontier.

While Facebook eventually lost its appeal among young users, other platforms like Instagram and Snapchat entered the scene, catering to the desire for anonymity and unrestricted expression.

Yik Yak, an anonymous gossip app that gained immense popularity a decade ago, provided an outlet for nameless posts within a short distance of the user. However, issues related to hate speech and threats led to its decline by 2017. Some colleges even restricted its access.

In 2014, the Yik Yak app was wildly popular among college students.

In 2022, Sidechat emerged on various Ivy League campuses, offering a platform for anonymous posting similar to Yik Yak but with a focus on building close-knit communities. Users were required to verify their school email addresses to access the app.

Students engage in discussions ranging from national politics to campus dining experiences on Sidechat, fostering unfiltered opinions in an intimate setting, as observed by Kenneth Joseph, an associate professor specializing in social media studies.

Joseph noted, “This platform encourages individuals to express thoughts they may not voice elsewhere, creating a conducive environment for candid conversations.”

Subsequently, Sidechat enlisted student ambassadors like T.K. Monford, a junior at Brown University, to promote the app among their peers. Monford’s involvement as an ambassador bolstered Sidechat’s presence on campus upon its launch in March 2022.

“It’s actually become a bigger part of campus than I think I ever expected,” Monford remarked.

Following the acquisition of Yik Yak in a merger, Sidechat aimed to replicate its predecessor’s success while implementing more stringent measures to curb hate speech and maintain control.

However, new challenges arose amidst a global conflict.

A ‘disturbing rise’ in hate speech

Unlike conventional social networks, Sidechat does not pre-screen posts before publication, unlike platforms such as Reddit, which require moderator approval.

Following a surge in hateful content on Sidechat post-Hamas’ attack, Harvard observed a concerning increase in antisemitic posts. Similar reports emerged from other campuses, flagging the prevalence of unsanctioned hate speech.

A nationwide survey conducted by the ADL highlighted that nearly one in 10 college students witnessed antisemitic posts associated with their university on social media following the Hamas attacks.

Sidechat offered insight into unmonitored dialogues occurring in informal spaces.

“At many campuses, the intolerance towards antisemitism has been eradicated,” remarked Adam Neufeld, a senior executive at the ADL.

Neufeld disclosed ongoing discussions with Sidechat’s leadership as issues regarding post management intensified. While the organization pushed for enhanced community guidelines, Sidechat emphasized a strict stance against antisemitism, racism, and bigotry.

However, detailed community guideline updates remain pending, casting a spotlight on the necessity for closer collaboration between colleges and Sidechat to address online harassment of marginalized groups.

“I advocate for a more robust partnership between schools and Sidechat to prevent online harassment targeting Jews and other vulnerable communities,” Neufeld emphasized.

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