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Harvard Asks Sidechat to Enforce Content Moderation as Jewish Students Decry ‘Vicious’ Antisemitism

A rise in antisemitic content on Sidechat prompted Harvard University officials to ask Sidechat leadership earlier this month to more strictly enforce the app's policies on content moderation.
A rise in antisemitic content on Sidechat prompted Harvard University officials to ask Sidechat leadership earlier this month to more strictly enforce the app's policies on content moderation. By Sami E. Turner
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

A rise in antisemitic content on Sidechat — a social media app that allows users to publish posts anonymously — prompted Harvard University officials to ask Sidechat leadership earlier this month to more strictly enforce the app’s policies on content moderation.

Harvard has faced fierce criticism since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel for allegedly failing to sufficiently protect Jewish students and combat antisemitism on campus. The surge of antisemitic posts on Harvard’s Sidechat page has served as a focal point for criticisms of the University’s efforts to combat antisemitism.

While Sidechat is not offered, managed, or endorsed by Harvard, the University has taken steps to address concerns of antisemitism on the third-party platform, including forwarding a sample of content to the Harvard University Police Department to determine whether a post warrants law enforcement action, according to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton.

Newton wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard has met with Sidechat leadership, who told University officials that content will be moderated according to the platform’s terms of use and community guidelines and that they will limit membership to current undergraduate students.

Harvard’s Information Security and Data Privacy Office will also escalate further reports of concerning content directly to Sidechat leadership, according to Newton.

The Harvard page on Sidechat — intended to facilitate anonymous messages between Harvard undergraduates — accidentally began to allow all Harvard affiliates to join the page in May 2023, Harvard Sidechat moderators wrote in a Jan. 16 post.

The platform has since been updated to restrict membership access to undergraduates.

“We always intended Harvard Sidechat to be for Harvard College,” the moderators wrote on Sidechat. “As a result, we have removed everyone without a @college.harvard.edu email address from the community and have reimplemented our original membership condition.”

Sidechat CEO and co-founder Sebastian Gil wrote in an emailed statement on Jan. 12 that “antisemitism, racism, and bigotry” have no place on Sidechat.

“We recognize these are difficult times on campuses and we’re committed to ensuring Sidechat remains a safe environment for students,” Gil added.

The University’s efforts to ask Sidechat to better moderate its content comes as affiliates have slammed the University over a rise in antisemitic content on Sidechat.

Incoming Hillel President Nathan B. Gershengorn ’26 wrote in an email that the antisemitic posts have become a major topic of conversation within Hillel and are “really hard to ignore.”

“It’s affected every Jewish student I've talked to about it,” Gershengorn said. “It’s a genuinely horrible feeling to know that so many of your classmates at a place that’s supposed to be the forefront of higher education are willing to give in to negative stereotypes.”

On Jan. 3, Computer Science professor Boaz Barak posted screenshots of antisemitic posts on Sidechat in a post on X, writing that “students celebrated the Hamas attacks or engaged in anti-semitic tropes” in multiple Sidechat posts.

The existence of antisemitic posts on Harvard’s Sidechat page also featured prominently in a federal lawsuit filed by six Jewish students against the University alleging Harvard allowed antisemitism to go unchecked on its campus.

The complaint states that Jewish students have faced attacks on social media and have been “dismissed and intimidated” by faculty members.

A folder compiled by Jewish students and shared with The Crimson documented 13 antisemitic Sidechat posts that have appeared on the app since Oct. 7. On X, users circulated a link to a separate shared document that cataloged examples of some antisemitic Sidechat posts.

In one such post, a Sidechat user wrote, “LET EM COOK” next to a Palestinian flag emoji hours after the start of the Oct. 7 attack, an apparent reference to the hundreds of Israeli civilians who died in the attack.

Maya A. Bodnick ’26, a Jewish student affiliated with the Reform Hillel Community, said she found the antisemitic content on Sidechat to be “disconcerting.”

“It makes you look around the community and wonder which of your peers are holding those sentiments but keeping them to themselves around you as a Jewish student — but then spewing hatred online,” Bodnick said.

While Bodnick said she has not encountered explicit antisemitism at Harvard in person, she said that Sidechat feels like a “mask-off space where people are not worried about having their identity revealed.”

After the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, rabbis on Harvard’s campus began to regularly meet with University administrators to address the needs of Jewish and Israeli students, Rabbi Getzel Davis said in an interview last week.

“From the beginning, we were sharing with them statements that were being shared on Sidechat,” Davis said.

Harvard Chabad President Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi described the antisemitic posts as “profoundly troubling” and “deeply concerning.”

The rise of antisemitic posts on Sidechat intensified following former University president Claudine Gay’s resignation on Jan. 2, according to several Jewish affiliates.

“We really believe in freedom of speech, and it’s only when language crosses the line into being something that is bullying and hateful that we would step in and call for anything like we did,” Davis said.

“It’s not simply just the fact that people are talking to each other — it’s the nature of these vicious lies and hate,” he added.

Charles M. Covit ’27 — who authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month describing rampant antisemitism at Harvard — described the posts as “disheartening.”

“It’s like, ‘Wow, these are not random trolls on the internet, these are students who go to Harvard,’” he added.

Jacob M. Miller ’25, a Crimson Editorial Chair and former president of Hillel, wrote in an emailed statement that discourse on Sidechat maligns Zionists.

“While criticism of Israel is completely legitimate, the use of the term ‘Zionist,’ which refers to those who believe that Jews should have some form of sovereignty in their indigenous homeland, suggests Sidechat users have sinister intentions and are using ‘Zionists’ as a dog whistle term for Jews,” Miller wrote.

Violet T.M. Barron ’26, a Crimson editorial editor and organizer with Harvard Jews for Palestine, wrote in a statement Tuesday that “campus discourse and national media have rendered calls for Palestinian liberation indiscernible from true instances of antisemitism — like some of these Sidechat posts.”

“This distortion grossly exaggerates claims of antisemitism at Harvard and stifles urgent demands for an end to Israel’s genocidal siege on Gaza and ongoing violent occupation,” Barron wrote.

Bodnick said she thinks that it is “reasonable” for Sidechat to take a more aggressive approach to regulating explicitly antisemitic content on its platform.

“That is not to say that I think Sidechat should take down posts that are critical of the State of Israel,” Bodnick added. “But if those posts veer into well-known antisemitic conspiracy theories, stereotypes, or slurs, then I think Sidechat should act.”

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at michelle.amponsah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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