Ethics Alert: Should ‘F*cked-Up Facebook Rape Hoax’ Have Been Posted?

Update: The moderators have shut down the page.

A post on the Boston College Confessions Facebook page from an anonymous BC student alleging he raped three drunk female students has provoked massive online ire, media attention and a university investigation. The subsequent twist in the tale — the post was a hoax — has made the ethical issues involved in its initial posting and viral spread even more complex.

The backstory: It has become known as “Confession #7122,” joining the thousands of other posts from BC students revealing secret crushes (“To the boy from New Zealand in my enviro class, you are incredibly attractive and your accent is amazing. I hope you sit next to me someday!”), random antics (“Two nights a week at 1 a.m., I go to the reservoir and go skinny dipping because I’ve always wanted to be a shark.”) and more serious sentiments (“On my spare time, I always look up magazine articles and online blogs to try to figure out why I am not usually the ‘cool girl’ that guys would want to hang out with. Is there something wrong with me?”).

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Confession #7122 is purported to be from a male student who admits upfront “I am not a very social guy, nor am I particularly good looking.” Within his 1,150-word write-up, he confesses to three separate incidents in which he had sex with young women whose inebriated states would make them incapable of consent under Massachusetts state law.

For example, as he writes about a night he escorted a friend’s drunk girlfriend home supposedly as a Good Samaritan, “When I got her to her room, she puked in her trash can a bit and eventually passed out on her bed. Being that I was slightly drunk at this point, my judgment was compromised, and I did something that I am still ashamed of. I took advantage of her, and what troubles me is that I enjoyed every minute of it. It wasn’t until the moment that I finished, that I suddenly was struck with intense feelings of shame and remorse.”

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In a separate incident, he describes kissing an intoxicated young woman who had stayed behind in his room after hanging out with the student writer’s roommate:

“At first she resisted, but between her fatigue and disarray, she gave in to it. We had sex that night. I used one of my roommate’s condoms, but to my horror, when I finished, I came to the disturbing realization that she had passed out at some point during the experience. Did I just do what I think I did? The thought horrified me. … I put her clothes back on her (which was more difficult than you’d think) and tucked her into my roommate’s bed. When she woke up the next morning, she asked me who I was and why she was in my room. She had no recollection of the prior night. I was thankful, because this meant that I didn’t have to apologize. I told her that she came in with my roommate and passed out in his bed around 1 am. She thanked me for being a gentleman, which I chuckled at under my breath.”

He ends with an especially disturbing divulgence: “I can’t help but be driven to do it again. I have these self-consuming thoughts that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to control.”

Whoa. Or as BC student Kate Lewis writes to the confessor in an open letter posted by The Rock, an online alternative outlet at the school, “You are a monster in every sense of the word. You are a menace. You are the reason why girls are warned to watch their drinks and never walk alone and trust no one. The fact that your confession was anonymous — that nobody knows who you are — that you could be anyone at this school — is terrifying.”

Ethics questions abound. Among them:

What are the journalistic, legal and moral implications of posting a confession describing such blatant law-breaking?

In a larger sense, are there any post topics that should be out-of-bounds?

Similarly, should a post like this be allowed to stand on its own without judgment, an explanation of its illegality or a listing of related resources from the moderators who published it? 

What is the responsibility of the page’s moderators in respect to alerting and working with law enforcement or campus officials?

What is the moderators’ responsibility to individuals who submit confessions? Are they sources to be protected, friends to be counseled when in need or members of the public who are on their own?

What is the responsibility of the page’s readership vs. the moderators, since in the end it’s really a crowdsourced experiment with mass commenting and sharing?

In respect to the latter, readers pounced, commenting beneath the post about its terribleness and providing links to resources such as the campus counseling center.

Then, the kicker. Soon after the post went live and began spurring gasps and oodles of e-hate, a student revealed to campus police that he wrote it as a hoax. Cue public mega-wrath, round two. As Jezebel summarizes the whole shebang in its related story headline, “Idiot Boston Student Upsets Everyone With F*cked-Up Facebook Rape Hoax.”

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The hoax angle also sparks a new wave of ethical questions to consider:

How should these confessions be vetted?

What is the relative value of the anonymity granted to those who submit confessions?

How should the confessions be judged by the public on a spectrum of straight news vs. fictional entertainment?

For their part, the page moderators argue the value of jumpstarting a discussion on the prevalence of campus sexual assault far outweighs related reader repugnance.

As they explain to The Gavel, an online news outlet at BC:

“As far as the now infamous Confession #7122 goes, as soon as we read it we knew we had a tough decision to make. It was clear that once it was posted there would be a major response, but if we didn’t post it would just be another case of people pushing the issue of rape under the rug. … We alerted the police and gave them all the information we had on the submission immediately after posting the confession. Censorship is rarely, if ever, the right choice. It might have come at the cost of making many students uncomfortable, but rape is happening at this school more often than any of us care to admit and it is a problem that will never be fixed unless it is confronted head on.”

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Once its hoax status was revealed, the moderators did delete the post. In their words, “We have always known that many of our posts are likely made up, and at the end of the day there is no way to tell which are true and which are not. It’s something we have to deal with in order to enjoy the benefits of anonymity. It’s a shame that this one post has single-handedly damaged our credibility overnight. But we hope that we will be able to move past this and continue to provide an outlet for the BC community.”

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