Hay River Facebook confessions page sparks concerns

A Hay River, N.W.T., woman says a Facebook page inviting residents to anonymously confess their 'deepest darkest secrets' has gone too far.

Posts about rape and other 'distressingly sexual' comments mix with small-town gossip

A Hay River woman says a Facebook page inviting residents to anonymously confess their "deepest darkest secrets" has gone too far, with some posts denigrating women and others containing enough detail to potentially identify the people being written about.

The page, called Hay River Confessions, started out like many of its kind: as a place for people to safely vent their feelings and preoccupations, under the cloak of anonymity.

But after less than two months online, the Hay River page has become a home for disturbing content.

It was distressingly sexual in nature. There were a lot of rather explicit posts.- Eric Meyers, assistant professor University of British Columbia's School of Library, Archival & Information Studies

On March 20, one Hay River male wrote, "I don't rape women often, but when I do, they like it." 

Later that day, a commenter — appearing to use his real name — wrote in lurid terms about using force against women. 

"My initial reaction was shock at the explicitness," says Victoria Deegan, who runs the Hay River Family Support Centre, a shelter for women and youth.

"One of the next things that comes to my mind is who's looking after this site? Who's monitoring what's going on this site?" 

Anonymous posts

To conceal their identities, users submit their posts using Google Forums. Those posts are then reviewed by a page administrator, whose real name is known only to Facebook. 

The administrator of Hay River Confessions declined to be interviewed, but writing via Facebook, said, "I haven't edited any of the posts. If I were to spend all my time taking down posts for people, we would not have any confessions."

The rape post has been removed from the page. 

Online confessions pages began popping up on sites such as Reddit and Facebook several years ago, proving popular with university and high school students. Users wrote about everything from partying to depression.

Victoria Deegan, executive director of the Hay River Family Support Centre, says she was shocked at the explicitness of the posts on Hay River Confessions. (Victoria Deegan)

But community-focused Facebook confessions pages — such as those that have taken root in Yellowknife and Fort Smith — are a more recent innovation, says Eric Meyers, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Library, Archival & Information Studies, who studies this phenomenon.

'Distressingly sexual'

Meyers says Hay River Confessions stands out.

"It was distressingly sexual in nature. There were a lot of rather explicit posts," he said. "That is not necessarily the nature of, say, the university pages. And it is not necessarily the nature of all community confessions sites. So I can understand how it may be distressing to some community members."​

Hay River's small size — population: 3,700 — makes the unwitting subjects of some posts particularly vulnerable to identification, says Meyers.

For example, on March 20, one Hay River female wrote of a delivery driver who "weirds" her out. She then went on to claim she once saw the driver masturbating in his delivery van. 

"I think there is the potential for some serious harm from these kinds of online confession when you're dealing with such a small community," said Meyers. "The ability to identify specific events and specific people just from descriptions becomes much greater."

Police aware

The CBC also communicated with the anonymous administrator of Northwest Territories Confessions, through Facebook, who described himself as a 20-something male living in Yellowknife but declined to give his name. 

His policy on page moderation stands in contrast to that of Hay River Confessions. 

"There have been posts where someone has been called out by name on something super embarrassing that they have done," he said. "There's a lot that I don't post. Most the time I'll remove the name or names. But there's some that are too specific and I just won't post at all."

Deegan of the Hay River shelter says some of the more disturbing Hay River posts make her wonder whether they should be reported to the RCMP.

But Const. Elenore Sturko, an RCMP spokesperson, says that while police are aware of pages like Hay River Confessions, "unless there is verifiable evidence to support that a specific crime has, or is going to be committed, there is no realistic way for investigators to substantiate charges."

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company has a team of people who monitor pages for content that doesn't meet its community standards, but that it also encourages community members to identify that content by using Facebook's reporting tools

A Wednesday post on Hay River Confessions by the administrator said, "H.R. I just want you to know, this page will be staying up."

Deegan worries people who are genuinely seeking help on the page will get overshadowed and ignored. 

"There's such a dichotomy in the posting. Some, when you read them, you really want to help. And then some are creepy — really weird and creepy."