December 15, 2019

Confessions of Her: The trend of confession pages and its consequences

Social media has seen an increased trend of usage in recent years. While it may have provided multiple opportunities to them, it has also exposed them to challenges that people before them had never imagined.

While we may like to think that shutting our device off would exclude us from that virtual world, but that is far from the reality. Whatever goes online, is just a mere reflection of our physical world. 

Sitting in an office, Tooba shares her experience of encountering one such challenge on the internet. She’s a student of a public university in Islamabad, but unlike many young girls, her story begins with an anonymous confession on a social media page; a confession she suddenly found herself to be the subject of. A confession about her.

As she shared her ordeal, she stared off at her desk, her coffee long forgotten, her thumbs twiddling at her blank smartphone screen, and her eyes fixated on some arbitrary point in air: her past.

Her story begins with an anonymous confession on a social media page; a confession she suddenly found herself to be the subject of. A confession about her.

“I used to go through the bus, to the university, and then come back through the bus as well.” 

She recalls the events that transpired almost a year and a half ago, still as fresh in her brain, as if they had happened yesterday.

She adds, “One day, I find out that some random guy from my bus had posted my location, my address, my bus number, and all of my details on a confession page, without posting his own name. These were two posts with the same information, one with my name, and one without.”

I felt vulnerable. I felt exposed.

Tooba, a university student

Even though she is not an active social media user, she still got tagged in that post multiple times by her friends.

“He had asked the admin, or the people who know me, to contact him so he could patch us together, and so that he could make his move.” 

As she relives the emotions again, she says,

“I felt vulnerable. I felt exposed.”

The concept of anonymous mails and secret admirers has existed since a very long time. People have always tried to find different and unique ways to communicate their fondness towards the people they like, in a discreet and anonymous manner, often thought to be exciting by the communicators, as they found it to be mysterious and romantic in a way.

While the confession pages are usually limited to high-schools or colleges and universities, their effects are far wider than just the four walls of these educational institutions.

The question of whether those feelings were reciprocated by the receiver is questionable however, as receiving love mails by someone you don’t know, could be counted as harassment, and could leave the receiver, especially if it’s a girl, feeling uncomfortable.

In the 21st century, people have started using social media as a tool to post their confessions anonymously for the world to see, ever since these online platforms became easily accessible to them. While the confession pages are usually limited to high-schools or colleges and universities, their effects are far wider than just the four walls of these educational institutions.

The concept of confession pages, is basically a group, page or an account on any social media platform, usually Facebook, Sarahah, Twitter and Instagram, where people can send in their confessions to the administrator, who then posts them anonymously for others to see.

In a society where a woman’s honour is more important for a family than her life, it becomes a problem when random men are expressing their ‘profound love’ for these women on social media platforms

The content of these confessions, is mostly, if not all, limited to crushes and secret admirers, and people expressing their ‘undying love’ anonymously, in hopes that someone would connect them for a harmonious relationship beyond the internet. How that works, we still don’t know.

Since Pakistan has always been a little late in the adaptation and integration of technology in our daily lives, this trend of high-school and university confession pages did not break out in our society until only a few years ago.

While this may seem fun for people posting these confessions, it’s a different experience for those who end up being the subject of such confession posts; more so if they’re a woman.

In a society where a woman’s honour is more important for a family than her life, it becomes a problem when random men are expressing their ‘profound love’ for these women on social media platforms anonymously, leaving them feeling alone, violated and humiliated.

Apart from the physical dangers that girls can land in, if they ever become a subject of these posts, what’s more appalling is the mental and emotional toll it takes on these girls

It becomes even more dangerous when the identity of the girl is explicitly being used, or her private details like her location, routine, etc. are being put out in the open.

Apart from the physical dangers that girls can land in, if they ever become a subject of these posts, what’s more appalling is the mental and emotional toll it takes on these girls, a factor that these admins and contributors never seem to take into consideration.

Talking about how she and the people around her, processed the whole incident, Tooba said:

“I talked to my friends about it. They didn’t think it was a serious thing. So I talked to my family about it, and they asked me to talk to the confession page owner, whoever he was, and to ask him that since my name is in the post, I’m not really comfortable with the online spamming that’s been happening to me ever since the confession got posted.”

I couldn’t file a case against him, because I didn’t know who he was. So I had to let it go.

Tooba

When the admin was reached out, he did remove the post, as well as the comments that used her name, but denied removing the other post that did not mention her name, saying that it won’t affect her that much.

“I couldn’t file a case against him, because I didn’t know who he was. So I had to let it go.”

The post still remains online, to this date, with Tooba’s information available for everyone to see.

Amenah Shahid, a student of another public university in Islamabad, faced a similar situation when three different posts were shared on the university’s confession page, all of them about her.

I was weirded out. The one where my name wasn’t mentioned, was still bearable, but the other ones which mentioned my name, and my department, and how I was running around the cafeteria, got me very offended.

Amenah Shahid

“These people randomly start stalking people, and then they start posting these confessions online. I really don’t think it’s a very nice thing to do.”

She adds, “Initially I was in disbelief. I was weirded out. The one where my name wasn’t mentioned, was still bearable, but the other ones which mentioned my name, and my department, and how I was running around the cafeteria, got me very offended.”

What’s more horrifying is what these posts actually implied for younger girls. A person who is willing to publish your private details online, could very well go to any extent to get their way.

“These people who are noticing you, actually take measures to get to know you, and then they approach you in other ways as well. If they can share confessions like that, and use my name, then they can go beyond any limits.”

She even tried to get the admin to remove the post that mentioned her name, but no action was taken. 

Now I’m always careful about my surroundings. I was on watch for a while to see if someone is following me.

Iqra

Iqra, a friend of Amenah’s, also experienced the same situation when someone posted a confession about her on the university’s Instagram confession page, through an app called Sarahah, where the sender is, by default, anonymous.

“I felt too concerned that people who I don’t know, know me and because of that I felt embarrassed at times.”

Although she said that the post was too generalized for her to actually take an action, that post did affect her psychologically.

“Now I’m always careful about my surroundings. I was on watch for a while to see if someone is following me,” she states.

“I felt scared.”

Both Amenah’s and Iqra’s names too, still remain on the confession pages.

Zainab, a student in Islamabad, recalls her experience with a confession post a few years back when she was in high school.

Although she said that the post was too generalized for her to actually take an action, that post did affect her psychologically.

“Back when I was in O levels and confession pages were a thing, they had mentioned my full name, and our school was small so everyone knew everyone. Half the post had compliments about me, about how I’m pretty, funny, nice, etc. The other half had bad stuff to say about my then-boyfriend, calling him a flirt and a lowlife.”

Talking about her initial reaction to the post, she stated, “I had just woken up from a nap, and saw a text from my friend saying there’s a post about me on that confession page. I immediately saw it and freaked out because it had my name and everything. I was afraid my mom would see [it], so I messaged the page asking them to take it down.”

She doesn’t remember now what the post said, but she does remember the feelings and emotions she felt at that time.

How can a person write anything about anyone they want? Online? For the public to see? That’s insensitive.

Zainab

“I didn’t like them mentioning names and stuff that nobody wants their parents to see, like having a boyfriend,” she added.

“It scared the hell out of me.”

Zainab later found out who the admin for the confession page was, and reached out to them personally. While that post was removed that same day, when the admin was inquired about the confessor, they refused to reveal the identity.

“It had freaked me out. I was also kind of mad they wrote that post at all. How can a person write anything about anyone they want? Online? For the public to see? That’s insensitive.”

Secret App, Ask.fm and Sayat.me were linked to many cases of teen suicides and cyberbullying in the past, which eventually led to these apps being shut down for good.

With such a common and popular trend of sending in confessions anonymously, a Saudi Arabian app called Sarahah.com, was released in 2016, which was built with the sole purpose to assist colleagues in giving anonymous feedback to their employers, but blew up as a viral social media sensation.

The application allowed others to send in messages to Sarahah users, without disclosing their own identity. While it did become popular among young people, users and bystanders soon identified the dangers of cyberbullying, harassment and hate speech, and how the trend of anonymous messages could potentially put people’s lives at risk.

In February 2018, BBC reported  the dangers of not only the Sarahah app, but many others before it as well. Girls got disturbing messages on that app, due to which the algorithm was changed to make sure no offensive words would pass through, but the threat of cyber-bullying prevailed.

Secret App, Ask.fm and Sayat.me were linked to many cases of teen suicides and cyberbullying in the past, which eventually led to these apps being shut down for good.

According to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, it constitutes as a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment

Jannat Fazal

ABC Action News named  Sarahah one of the most dangerous apps for kids, due to its potential for being used as a cyber-bullying tool.

Even though local as well as international media has raised their voices in concern for these types of anonymous confession apps, and while some platforms have shut down due to these concerns, yet the culture of institutional confession pages found a way to prevail on social media, putting the integrity, security and mental health of girls at a constant risk.

Jannat Fazal, a psychologist at the Digital Rights Foundation, expressed her views on the concept of why anonymity in such confession posts is so popular.

“The idea of affection or having a crush on someone is tabooed in our society, one cannot express love, or affection without getting shamed for it. In some cases, the fear of being rejected prevents people from openly expressing their liking as well.”

While such confession posts may seem harmless fun to some people, it can actually get them into legal trouble, such as in the case of Tooba, where her personal information was shared online.

“According to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, it constitutes as a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment,” Jannat added.

I would say report these posts. Go to the authorities. Go to your university administration. It is cyberbullying if it’s targeted at you negatively.

Zaianb

Regarding the toll that such cases of invasion of privacy, and online harassment can take on young girls, Jannat said:

“In Pakistan’s social context, breaching privacy and sharing personal information of girls puts them at risk for being unsolicitedly contacted, approached, and/or harmed. In our social context, it has dire consequences for girls not just psychologically but socially and economically as well.”

With regards to whether these girls should reach out to their respective educational institutions for help and accountability with reference to the confession posts, there seems to be a mixed opinion on the subject.

Amenah says, “I don’t think the university administration can do anything about these pages, neither does the student affairs department because these pages are run by students.”

What the university admin can do is teach these people that if they actually have something to say to somebody, this is not the right way.

Tooba

Iqra agreed, saying that the girls should first and foremost report these posts, and block the pages.

“I don’t think university administration has any policy in place to help students in such a scenario, so I think it will be a bad idea to go to the administration. It won’t change anything unless the administration comes up with strict rules about it.”

When Zainab was asked about the actions that girls should take in such cases, she stated, “I would say report these posts. Go to the authorities. Go to your university administration. It is cyberbullying if it’s targeted at you negatively.”

More so, student affairs departments should be more conscious and aware, and readily available to help provide assistance around cyber security to their students

Educational institutions, where the trend of confession pages is very popular, have a responsibility to address incidents involving students that happen on the internet, especially when the institute’s name is affiliated with the page.

More so, student affairs departments should be more conscious and aware, and readily available to help provide assistance around cyber security to their students, especially in cases of threats and harassment.

“What the university admin can do is teach these people that if they actually have something to say to somebody, this is not the right way. This is not how you express your feelings,” says Tooba.

My friends who saw the post, made fun about it. They were laughing about it. Nobody took it very seriously apart from me.

Amenah

Hina Zahid, a media student in Islamabad, expressed that she had been the subject of a confession post on Instagram. When asked about her advice for other girls who go through a similar situation, she suggested that they should turn a blind-eye to such things.

“Don’t take things personally and any confession should never affect your life.”

In such situations where girls feel vulnerable and exposed with them being subject of such offensive and objectifying comments, one would imagine that they would at least get some moral support from their friends and peers, but that’s usually not what the victims of these posts have experienced.

In Pakistan, where a girl can be murdered  by her own brother for attempting to answer the door, a man commenting on the looks of a woman would be considered a bad omen for her

“My friends who saw the post, made fun about it. They were laughing about it. Nobody took it very seriously apart from me,” states Amenah.

“They pretty much enjoyed it.”

“Did you enjoy it?” she was asked.

“No, I did not.”

Tooba also had a similar reaction from her friends, saying that they thought it was funny.

“They did not realize that it’s not fun for me. My name is literally being abused publicly.”

While some people might find attraction in the whole concept of secret admirers and anonymous confessions, for most it is a violation of their personal space

In Pakistan, where a girl can be murdered  by her own brother for attempting to answer the door, a man commenting on the looks of a woman would be considered a bad omen for her.

This is the major reason for women in conservative societies across socio-economic settings to be secretive among their families when it comes to the challenges they face in their lives, partly because of the fear of being subjected to anger from them, and also because of the societal pressure of always being the pious daughter of the house. And this pressure becomes the sole reason why this kind of targeted harassment don’t get reported to authorities.

While some people might find attraction in the whole concept of secret admirers and anonymous confessions, for most it is a violation of their personal space and can lead to stressful consequences.

As Tooba concluded her comment, she shared her experience of finding out the identity of the man who posted her details online.

“I did find out who that guy was. He went in my bus.”

[He’d proudly confess,] ‘I was the one who posted that confession!’ in the bus. Everybody knew it was him.

Tooba

But finding out about that guy’s identity just wasn’t enough. Tooba said she was more scared of what he was capable of doing in the bus that they both took from university.

“He would whistle and make noises to get my attention in the public. He would be with his friends. [He’d proudly confess,] ‘I was the one who posted that confession!’ in the bus. Everybody knew it was him.”

With this kind of public cat-calling in an educational institution, 18-year-old Tooba was forever scarred.

“I had to stop taking the bus. Because of one guy.”

Written by

Abeerah Mehreen is a Mass Communication student from NUST, majoring in Multimedia Journalism. Apart from her love for video editing, photography and graphic designing, she aspires to be an online journalist.

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