What is Sidechat? The controversial app students have used amid campus protests, explained

What is Sidechat? The controversial app students have used amid campus protests, explained

When Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear arrived at the University of California, Los Angeles early Thursday, the anonymous messaging app Sidechat filled with posts trying to piece together what was happening: “Is everyone ok? I just heard like 8 cop cars go by,” one post read. Others shared rumors about police action and outside agitators and pointed students to live streams to watch the events unfold.

Sidechat has taken on a new role on college campuses as pro-Palestinian demonstrations and law enforcement’s response to them have escalated in recent weeks. Posts on the app are anonymous, allowing students to share opinions and updates freely in a way they often can’t on other platforms. But Sidechat’s anonymous nature has also fueled hateful rhetoric, college administrators say, raising questions about its role in spreading division on campuses. 

What is Sidechat?

The app launched in 2022 and was marketed to college students as a digital space to talk authentically about campus life. Students log in with their university email addresses to access closed groups that are specific to each school — similar to Facebook when it first began as a platform only for students with “.edu” addresses. 

banned from at least half a dozen campuses after concerns about bullying and harassment on the platform. Sidechat acquired Yik Yak in 2023. Fizz, another anonymous app founded a year before Sidechat, has also gained popularity on college campuses. 

Fear, frustration and tension as protests mount

CBS News reviewed Sidechat conversations at five schools where pro-Palestian protests have taken place: Columbia, Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, UCLA and New York University. While some posts called on students to join the protests, others criticized them for disrupting campus life. 

However, criticism of police presence and university response united many students. At Columbia, students expressed anger and dismay at the university’s decision to call in the NYPD on Tuesday to dismantle the encampment and clear Hamilton Hall, where some protesters had barricaded themselves. A video of a protester tumbling down steps in front of Hamilton Hall was upvoted more than 1,600 times as posters alleged police used excessive force. 

Posts in some university Sidechat groups said students were struggling to concentrate on exams during the protests. A post on the UT Austin chat read, “This is all very distracting for people and I think everyone deserves a curve on their finals.”

Screenshot of a post by an anonymous user on the University of Texas at Austin’s Sidechat

CBS News

Screenshot of a post in Columbia student Sidechat 

CBS News

Allegations of hate on the platform

The anonymous nature of Sidechat has allowed for harassment and bullying, college administrators and lawmakers have said. The app came under scrutiny by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in its ongoing investigations into how Columbia, Harvard and other universities have handled alleged incidents of antisemitism. 

In an April 17 hearing with the committee, Columbia President Minouche Shafik said Sidechat was “poisonous” and that “probably the most egregious cases that we’ve seen of antisemitism, Islamophobia, racist comments have been on social media on those anonymous channels.”

In February, a 114-page legal complaint filed on behalf of Jewish students at Columbia alleged that Sidechat was used to harass one Jewish student who had removed a political flier from a dorm hallway. Users on Sidechat shared her dorm room location and encouraged students to vandalize her space, the filing says. 

In January, Harvard asked Sidechat to do more to monitor “concerning content” on its school group. According to Inside Higher Education, Sidechat assured the school it would moderate posts to ensure community guidelines aren’t violated. 

CBS News found multiple posts across university chats that used aggressive or obscene language to describe protesters on both sides of the issue.

This week, posts and comments on Harvard’s chat denied or made light of the notion that Jewish students might feel unsafe on campus. In a UCLA Sidechat group conversation, a student wrote that protesters were “indoctrinated sheep,” while another posted that they “wish nothing but the worst for the people in the encampment.” Posters in UT Austin’s forum leveled similar insults at people taking part in protests.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has also seen protests related to the Israel-Hamas war, has blocked access to Sidechat and similar anonymous messaging apps outright on its campus Wi-Fi after the president said in February that the apps have “shown a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of young people and an outright indifference to bullying.”

Sidechat cofounder Sebastian Gil did not respond to a request for an interview. Gil told USA Today in March that Sidechat has a team of 30 content moderators who review and remove posts that violate its terms of use against content that is threatening, offensive or profane. The app also warns users that posts containing students’ names will be deleted. 

Jui Sarwate contributed to this report.

Julia Ingram

Source: cbsnews.com