Last week, the AndersonU app erupted into a debate over a chapel speaker’s message. A post made by senior music business and Christian ministries major Boris Sitnikoff about the Tuesday morning chapel service received more than 100 comments before it disappeared. The disappearance of the post only seemed to further confuse and enrage students, leaving them wondering why it was taken down.
Caitlynn Elkins is the digital storyteller at AU. She manages AU’s social media accounts and oversees the AndersonU app. According to Elkins, administrators of the app have the power to remove posts, but only do so when a post is in violation of Title IV or when it places students in danger.
“To my knowledge, the policy has always been that we don’t censor anything unless it is a Title IV violation, or if a student or a group of students are in direct danger,” she said.
Elkins and certain members of the Department of Student Life are administrators of the app. As far as Elkins knows, no one who has the ability to delete posts from the app has ever done so.
“An administrator of the app can delete posts, but we have set very strict guidelines that we are not to censor anything that the students are saying, whether it is or is not controversial,” she said. “The idea that someone has deleted posts who has the permission to do so, I don’t believe that has ever been done before.”
Aside from being removed by an app administrator, there are two ways a post can be removed: if it is taken down by the student who posted it, or if it is reported as inappropriate by four students.
Elkins said that, once a post has been reported as inappropriate by four students, it is automatically hidden, not permanently deleted. The only way for a hidden post to reappear on the app is if it is reactivated by an administrator.
“It can be hidden, but in no way is the post and the comments made to it deleted,” she said.
Since the app is relatively new, there is no review process in place for reactivating hidden posts.
“Previously, the app hasn’t been used to its fullest abilities, so this is a new process for us,” said Elkins. “We really are working through this right now to figure out what that process is and if we would or wouldn’t reactivate a hidden post.”
Contrary to what many students think, Elkins says that the university would never remove a student’s post simply because it is controversial.
“It’s really frustrating for the students to think that, just because a post contradicts any of our beliefs, we would take it down,” she said. “That is absolutely not the case here. We respect your opinions, we respect what you have to say and we don’t delete anything.”
Sitnikoff, whose post was hidden after being reported as inappropriate, believes that the current system for hiding posts creates a “mob rule” that is dangerous to the freedom of ideas.
“To my current knowledge, all the AndersonU app needs is a handful of reports from students in order for it to automatically delete a post,” he said. “If that is indeed true, then that makes the app vulnerable to potential abuse from users who want to band together against the interests of our community of students, take control of the app and suppress whatever they want to suppress, regardless of whether or not it actually goes against AU’s policies or U.S. law. Such a system is not fair.”
A better system for removing posts, according to Sitnikoff, would be if reported posts were reviewed before being deleted rather than being automatically hidden.
“Instead of automatically deleting the entire post after only a handful of students reporting it, I would propose that the reporting system at least be updated, so that if a post gets flagged by a certain amount of users it’s instead brought under review by skilled moderators fully informed on AU’s policies who determine whether or not the post in question is deserving of deletion,” he said.
Sitnikoff believes that censorship is harmful to freedom of expression and the debating of ideas.
“When content that doesn’t go against AU policy or U.S. law is censored and suppressed, not only does it potentially discourage people from freely, openly and honestly expressing what they have to say at an individual level, which is horribly unjust in and of itself, but it also it affects people at the collective level, compromising the very essential component that gives this community the ability to remain truly peaceful with free, open and honest dialogue,” said Sitnikoff.
Isabelle Hughes, sophomore music education major, says it’s difficult to decide what the minimum number of reports should be for a post to be deleted, but that there should be a review process in place.
“Someone should be reviewing posts before they’re hidden,” she said. “It shouldn’t just be an automatic thing.”
Of Boris’ post, Hughes said, “It’s free speech and it shouldn’t have been taken down.”
Christopher Allen, junior mechanical engineering major, believes that freedom of speech is essential in the debating of ideas.
“I don’t think free speech anywhere on campus should be encroached upon,” he said. “This is a university. This is where people are meant to spar over ideas. You’re meant to grow in what you believe.
“To silence ideas, unless what’s being said is inciting violence or—given that this is a Christian campus—using vulgar words or derogatory terms, is unjust.”
Allen believes that posts shouldn’t remain hidden simply because they’re controversial.
“I know that what Boris says and does can be enraging from time to time, but his opinion is no less valid than mine or yours,” he said.