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Notebook Education

Students logged on

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)


Students logged on

Unofficial, student-led social media groups alternatively appease or annoy school administrators

Sara Johnson, a senior at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was in chapel when she learned about a funny social media account run by a Moody student. A dean showed chapel attendees a meme—a pop culture joke featuring an image and witty caption—and Johnson looked up the Instagram account he had pulled it from,

After submitting a few memes to the account, Johnson accepted an offer to run it. She posts memes about Moody Bible Institute for about 1,200 followers at a school with about 3,000 students. One recent meme: a picture of Saruman from the Lord of the Rings saying, “So you have chosen … death,” with a caption about enrolling in a Saturday class. Another includes a popular cartoon of a dog relaxing in a burning room paired with Johnson’s caption about the chaos and change Moody seniors have seen during their time at the school.

Most colleges and universities have unofficial online communities where prospective students ask about admissions and current students share inside jokes and complaints. Though not run by school officials, these groups represent their schools, and the students and alumni who run them know administrators are watching.

At Moody, Johnson keeps her account lighthearted, poking fun at Bible college stereotypes and cafeteria food. She tries to support the college: When it offered students free coronavirus tests, Johnson posted a picture of Uncle Sam pointing a finger and saying, “WE WANT YOU FOR COVID-19 TESTING.”

But at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pa., an anonymously run Facebook page that posts anonymous comments—Messiah Confessions Uncensored—has a more fraught relationship with its school. Posts range from appreciation for dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets to accusations of fraud and speculation about COVID-19 on campus.

A school representative said Messiah considers the page unconstructive and divisive. Administrators watch it for trends and rumors. On a post accusing Messiah of falsifying COVID-19 numbers, a resident director commented, “False. Weird take.” Another resident director encouraged the post’s author to ask school employees for information before making claims. Some students thanked the resident directors. Others asked them to leave.

Three-quarters of college-age Americans use Facebook and Instagram, according to Pew Research. A fifth use Reddit, a social media site where users can create or join groups, called “subreddits,” dedicated to a single topic—anything from studying for the LSAT to exploring caves. Reddit users are typically anonymous, which emboldens bullies and inflammatory posting. Some subreddits are focused on pictures of cute animals, and others are known for racism or pornography. The creators or volunteer moderators set the subreddit’s rules and can block users who don’t comply. On school subreddits, common for large universities, moderators decide whether to enforce school rules or give users free rein.

On school subreddits, moderators decide whether to enforce school rules or give users free rein.

The Penn State University subreddit uses PSU’s name and logo. Michael Cao, a moderator and PSU junior, said the moderators want to support the school and foster campus community. One subreddit rule, referencing PSU’s school song, forbids “acts that may bring shame,” including cheating, lying, and inflammatory posts. The moderators allow some discussion of school scandals but delete posts they deem intentionally divisive. A bot automatically flags posts about COVID-19 so moderators can check for misinformation.

Before the pandemic, moderators organized a group meal on campus each semester. Subreddit members still meet in person in smaller groups for food or board games. Several university employees are members of the subreddit—a math professor offers calculus help—which Cao takes as implicit approval from the school.

By contrast, Liberty University’s subreddit prefers to avoid the school’s attention. Liberty (where I am a current student) is one of the few Christian schools with an active subreddit, run by alumni Joe Moyer and David Keller. At 2,400 members to the 21,000 in PSU’s subreddit, Liberty’s subreddit is small enough that the school hasn’t interfered so far.

Most subreddit members take COVID-19 seriously, so much so that Keller, who still lives near Liberty’s Lynchburg, Va., campus, has asked them to avoid fearmongering. He often asks posters to give evidence for any unverified COVID-19 claims. If they don’t, he deletes the post.

The subreddit attracts a liberal subset of Liberty’s generally conservative student body. These users often disagree with school leadership and politics. When Jerry Falwell Jr. left the school amid scandal in August, subreddit members rejoiced and posted a flood of news articles and sex jokes. The subreddit’s traffic spiked from 500 visitors a day to 23,000 when Reddit featured the group on its homepage.

After a few days of chaos, the moderators stepped in, deleting posts they deemed repetitive or vindictive. Keller said he wants the group to reflect well on the school and on Christianity. Eventually the subreddit settled back into a routine of football scores and questions about ordering pizza in a dorm.

Across Reddit, Keller has seen the bullying that gives the platform a bad reputation. But he has also traded guitar pedals on the site, found fellow Mets fans, and prayed with strangers. To him, Liberty’s subreddit allows students to wrestle with the good and bad at the school.

“You can just drop a comment and walk away from it,” Keller said. But he fights that temptation: “As a Christian, we need to do this differently.”