April 29, 2024 | Insight

The Out-of-Control Social Media App Spreading Antisemitism at Columbia

April 29, 2024 | Insight

The Out-of-Control Social Media App Spreading Antisemitism at Columbia

Demonstrators have shouted “tear down the gates!” while circling Columbia University’s main entrance in recent days. “I am Hamas!” “Long live the intifada!” The chants carried beyond the gates, intimidating Jewish students just yards away.

While masked protesters continue to occupy Columbia’s green spaces and broadcast antisemitic messages through bullhorns, the social media app Sidechat enables others in the Columbia community to hide their identities while spreading antisemitism online and coordinating and mobilizing harmful acts offline.

University leadership is aware of the problem. President Minouche Shafik condemned Sidechat during an April 17 House Education Committee hearing on the school’s response to campus antisemitism. The question is whether Shafik will follow up with tangible action to stop Sidechat from being used to target Jewish students.

During the hearing, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) expressed concern about social media’s role in the rise of antisemitism on campus. 

“You are absolutely right that social media is part of the problem,” replied Shafik. “I am particularly uncomfortable with some of the anonymous channels — things like Sidechat. Every student I meet, I tell them please get off Sidechat, it’s poisonous.” Shafik also emphasized “the most egregious cases that we’ve seen of antisemitism” have been on identity-masking social media.

So what exactly is Sidechat? What makes it a distinctively useful tool for those interested in ginning up hatred?

Sidechat is an anonymous localized app, meaning it restricts participation to a specific community, but users can view and publish content while concealing their identities. In settings like Columbia, it serves as a college-specific virtual discussion platform that allows anyone with an affiliated “.edu” address to gossip instantly and anonymously.

Apps like Sidechat spawn largely ungoverned virtual spaces that function as quasi-official extensions of campus life, often amplifying its worst elements. Instigators are members of their victims’ collegiate community, causing the app to “take on a more disturbing dimension,” explained Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude. “You don’t know where the aggression is coming from, but you know it’s very close to you.” Perpetrators can hide in plain sight.

Consider how Sidechat markets itself: “All posts, comments, and messages are anonymous, so feel free to be your most authentic.” Columbia’s antisemites have taken the advice to heart.

One post on Sidechat read, “wish we had some way to indicate zionists and the zionist supporting shops in morningside so we can actively avoid them and not give them our business…perhaps with a star of david from the israeli flag?” And when one Columbia commenter asked what another’s “problem with Zionists” was, the poster responded, “my problem is their existence.”

Tragically, online hatred and intimidation migrate to the real world.

“In a series of Sidechat posts, Columbia students also targeted and effectively doxed a Jewish Barnard resident assistant because she removed propaganda from a dormitory bulletin board,” according to a 114-page legal complaint filed on behalf of several Jewish students and two organizations on February 21. “The posts named the resident assistant’s specific dormitory and floor, leaving no doubt as to her identity and location, and encouraged students to vandalize her dormitory room, which they eventually did.”

So, what can be done?

During the recent hearing, Shafik said she “would welcome any, any improvement in content moderation” to reduce hatred on the apps. Congress could help by inviting Sidechat CEO Sebastian Gil to testify and pressing him to explain why he has failed to prevent the spread of antisemitic content on his app. “Antisemitism, racism, and bigotry” are unwelcome on Sidechat, Gil wrote on January 12, according to the Harvard Crimson. “We recognize these are difficult times on campuses and we’re committed to ensuring Sidechat remains a safe environment for students.” In reality, antisemites feel right at home.

For her part, Shafik should emulate the president of the University of North Carolina (UNC), who announced on February 29 plans to block Sidechat and similar apps from UNC infrastructure, asserting they “have shown a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of young people and an outright indifference to bullying.”

If Columbia’s President Shafik means what she said and is serious about fighting bigotry on campus, she will follow UNC’s lead and block Sidechat without delay. Failing to govern the virtual spaces created by anonymous apps facilitates hatred and ultimately, violence.

Antonette Bowman is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. For more analysis from Antonette and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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