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UNC to ban anonymous social media apps, prompting free speech concerns

Modern equivalent of ‘scrawling cruel rumors on the bathroom wall,’ president says

The University of North Carolina System plans to ban anonymous social media apps across its 16 campuses, arguing the technology companies have a “reckless disregard” for students’ wellbeing.

Other universities are considering similar bans, prompting concerns from free speech advocates.

UNC System President Peter Hans announced the plan in a two page statement to the UNC Board of Governors earlier this semester. Hans said social media apps are the modern equivalent of “scrawling cruel rumors on the bathroom wall,” and the most destructive ones will be blocked by the UNC System infrastructure.

His statement did not include a timeline for the social media block. The College Fix reached out to UNC three times via email and phone call for comment in the past two weeks, but the university did not respond.

“We’re targeting a handful of smaller, hyper-local platforms that have shown reckless disregard for the wellbeing of young people and an outright indifference to bullying and bad behavior,” Hans said in his statement.

The specific apps that will be restricted include YikYak, Sidechat, Fizz, and Whisper. Hans said these “feature jokes and memes but also turn a blind eye to everything from sexual harassment and racial insults to drug dealing.”

These apps were made specifically for college students to connect based on their university campus, current location, or interests. Users can anonymously share memes, jokes, photos and more, but they are really a platform for students to communicate with each other, no holds barred.

MORE: Stanford, Georgetown team up on ‘governance’ of the Internet

Fizz’s description on the app store boasts, “Say what you want, when you want, and maintain full control over your anonymity.”

A spokesperson for The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which works to defend free speech rights on college campuses, said these apps can be safe outlets for students who feel like they can’t talk about certain things on campus.

“They allow for anonymous speech. They also do provide an outlet for constructive and significant conversations on topics that often are sensitive enough that students may not want to broach them without that cover of anonymity,” FIRE Program Officer Jessie Appleby told The Fix in a phone interview.

Many students do feel a need to self-censor, according to the foundation’s 2024 College Free Speech report, which surveyed more than 55,000 students.

According to the survey, more than half worry about their reputation being damaged because of someone misunderstanding what they said, and one in four say they self-censor “often” in discussions with professors and other students.

Appleby told The Fix, “With a ban, you’re kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You’re getting rid of that outlet for constructive speech just because of a small amount of offensive speech and that’s generally not how you want to approach speech.”

In his statement, UNC’s president Hans acknowledged the social media block will only exist within the system’s Wi-Fi, leaving students to likely continue using the apps on their own data plans and effectively making the restriction pointless.

But Appleby expressed concerns to The Fix about the precedent the UNC System is setting for students and other universities.

“The point of the symbolic ban is to say, ‘We don’t like whatever offensive speech is taking place there,’ and that’s a really unfortunate message for a public university that is constitutionally obligated, but also just traditionally a place of free inquiry and free speech, to say, ‘We want to take these symbolic moves to show you how much we don’t like particular speech,’” Appleby said.

“That’s just completely antithetical to their role as places of free inquiry and debate. I don’t think it’s wise, both because of that message, and also because it’s ineffective,” she told The Fix.

Other universities including Harvard and Brown have taken steps toward the removal of these apps as well.

Appleby told The Fix, “You don’t get rid of an entire medium just because some people use it irresponsibly.”

MORE: Foreign foundation backs USC social media ‘disinformation’ tracker

IMAGE: ChristianWiediger/Unsplash

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Andi Shae Napier is a student at Liberty University where she is studying journalism and digital media. She also writes news and feature stories for the Liberty Champion.