COLUMNS

  /  

March 7, 2022

  /  

5:35 p.m.

UChicago Secrets Has a Secret

Jinna Lee / The Chicago Maroon

Here’s a secret: I’ve been called out on UChicago Secrets before. Despite being a wide-eyed, naive first-year who wanted nothing more than to fly under the radar in order to figure out what the heck college life is all about, I committed a heinous crime only a couple of weeks into fall quarter: coughing on the second floor of the Reg, which—as it turns out—is a cardinal sin that warrants an all-caps, expletive-littered post on the anonymous platform. “YOU NEED JESUS,” it said. Harsh.

As hostile as Secrets can be, it’s maddeningly addictive to read. Only after discovering UChicago Secrets does Gossip Girl begin to make sense; from calling out coughers and talkers on the upper levels of the Reg (whoops!) to confessing relationship drama, submissions to UChicago Secrets are salacious and unabashedly unfiltered, largely because of the complete anonymity the page offers its posters. In recent weeks, however, the page’s focus has shifted, and campus safety issues have come to dominate it—discussions that have endured even after the page’s brief hiatus and subsequent reinstatement. The tragic shooting and death of recent UChicago graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng—alongside a slew of other violent incidents affecting campus over the course of the past few months—ignited a campus-wide conversation regarding safety and security. Discourse regarding the role of UCPD and surveillance in the Hyde Park community took over UChicago Secrets for weeks. Nevertheless, the anonymity of online spaces like UChicago Secrets is as dangerous as it is liberating; the ability to disassociate identity from opinion fosters a concerning lack of accountability, creating an unproductive environment for civil debate.

As submissions roll in concerning campus safety and security, the anonymity of the platform fuels increasing amounts of toxicity. Some level of fervor is to be expected, especially with tensions running high across campus. What’s concerning, however, is the increasingly frequent use of what I can only describe as racism disguised as reasoned argumentation rooted in fact. When our names aren’t attached to the statements we put out, we’re free to disregard the social standards that typically hold us accountable, and can speak without considering the implications of our submissions. The ability to remain anonymous creates a perception of immunity from sharing racist remarks and ideologies. A post asks, “Is it racist if I get scared when a black man walks near me at night?” while another responds, “People are gonna say you’re racist but it’s just statistics…” Posts like these––eased by the affordance of anonymity––aren’t just the insensitive ramblings of undergraduates hiding behind anonymity; they’re words that carry real weight and cause real harm. They borrow rhetoric from vile, decades-old stereotypes that cast all Black men as “superpredators, further marginalizing a community that’s already spent decades laboring under the burden of systemic injustice, and co-opt racism in the name of pragmatism. Malicious stereotypes can spiral rapidly into scapegoating, in which entrenched social and systemic issues are cast aside and Black people face unmerited blame rooted in decades-old racism. We see these harsh consequences play out in national statistics: Black people, despite making up 13.4 percent of the population, make up 47 percent of wrongful conviction exonerations and are five times as likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than white people.

To portray Secrets posts as whimsical, irreverent, and well-intentioned—if crass—fun is deeply reckless. Anonymous public forums with immense reach, no cap on submission frequency, and superficial content filters often become echo chambers for hate: one post referencing fear toward Black people slips through, and suddenly, more pour in—justifications, excuses, and validations veiled by plausible deniability and buried under dog whistles. These aren’t statements that you’d hear in a lecture hall of 4,000, but they exist online for an audience of 4,000 Facebook users. And with that many followers, UChicago Secrets’ readership surpasses, by some estimates, the weekly readership of The Maroon. The scope and reach of UChicago Secrets rival that of our campus’ longest-standing journalistic outlets, but include none of the standards that govern reliable journalism. It’s crowdsourced news—ordinarily relegated to our grandparents’ WhatsApp group chats and 4chan message boards—turned mainstream. When this type of behavior spirals, it parallels the tangible dangers of violent conspiracy theories and far-right extremism in hate-enabling anonymous forums like Reddit and Parler.

Secrets, with its unverifiable statistics and consistently uncorroborated citations, illustrates the dangers of taking anonymous posts as truth. The idea of anonymity lets anybody, truly anybody, submit anything they want; what’s preventing students from typing out blatant lies and shitposting—which, according to the page, is ​​“allowed and encouraged” and could be funny until it crosses a line? And who’s to say where a line that arbitrary should be drawn? What about alumni who want to add fuel to the fire solely out of boredom? Granted, when the topics of the week on Secrets are GPA discourse and Reg silence levels, such hypothetical scenarios add little to no harm. Nevertheless, when conversations shift to race and police, the lack of authentication for evidence-based claims on platforms like Secrets enables easy scapegoating.

Pages like UChicago Secrets are breeding grounds where personal jabs become the norm, undermining any productive discussion or debate. Those who disagree with the security measures being rolled out by the University become mere “stupid sociology majors who’ll deny reality”—though I can’t help but wonder how sociology, defined by the study of the literal society around us, can be out of touch with reality.

While Secrets does sometimes have its perks (the rare helpful answer to a posed question tends to supply a nice, fuzzy feeling of community), it’s important to balance protecting anonymity to ensure free speech and enforcing consequences for harmful and abusive rhetoric. UChicago Secrets’ anonymous nature intends to encourage honest discussion about college life. The ultimate outcome, however, especially when centering sensitive and difficult subjects like policing, is a platform of toxic, impersonal, and sometimes racist remarks that make productive discourse impossible.

Irene Qi is a first-year in the College.