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Content Warning: The following article quotes profane language and mentions transphobia.
I never thought I’d be writing an editorial about something that took place almost entirely on Instagram, but here we are, in the year 2020.
How a Confessions Page Began to Facilitate COVID-Conversations
Recent years have seen various Trent-based Instagram accounts pop up. As far as I can tell, there are four different kinds of Trent-based (but not affiliated) accounts. The first, is @trentpartylife, which aims to showcase and contribute to party culture at Trent. The second deal in the hottest commodity known to students - memes. There are a few of these. The third is ‘@trent_crushes’ allows students to anonymously post their crushes, and ideally track down their ‘missed connections.’ Finally, there are ‘confessions’ accounts, where students can anonymously share their experiences, and perhaps receive advice or affirmation from those in the comments.
In early September, one of these accounts - @trentpartylife - caused quite the ruckus, posting footage from the now infamous ‘bridge party’ where first-year students were filmed drinking, etc. by the Nassau Mills foot bridge. None of these students were wearing masks or social-distancing; local media ran with the story; public outrage ensued. Students and community members were angry. Leo sent some emails, made some statements.
Several of these Trent-based accounts took to Instagram to condemn this behaviour. One account that really stands out as having facilitated much of the conversation around the bridge party, and what ought to be done about it, is @trentu.confessions. They had been posting a lot of responses from students about their COVID-concerns. They posted anonymous ‘confessions’ from immuno-compromised students who were worried about their parents forcing them to come home for the sake of their health and safety. They posted anonymous ‘confessions’ from closeted queer students who were fearful of having to return to unsafe living situations back home.
The comments were acrimonious. Many students were calling for the students pictured in the video to be expelled, fined, or penalized in some other way. Some demanded that Trent invest in better surveillance technology so that students breaking COVID rules could be identified and punished. One comment read, “Trent should be hunting them down based on the photos and expelling them. They don’t bleed green.”
I would quote the comments section more extensively, but this account no longer exists in the way that it once did - more on that later.
Halloween Goes Haywire
Fast forward two months to the last weekend of October, that long-awaited, highly favoured last day of the month: Halloween! Trent students were tasked with making decisions about how they’d celebrate this hair-raising holiday while keeping their communities safe. It seems many opted not to observe this occasion with the usual celebratory flare, and many chose to have small gatherings with the members of their bubbles.
@Memes_of_trentu posted a meme that day that read: “The legal penalty for hosting a large halloween party in the middle of a pandemic is being thrown off the Faryon [Bridge] by Leo.”
It also seems that some students decided to ignore - or flat out reject - COVID protocols. @Trentpartylife did not learn from their bridge party blunder, and posted a video of an unmasked Trent student yelling, waving around his middle finger, and shotgunning some kind of vodka-soda beverage at a party. They posted the student’s Instagram handle.
On November 1, @memes_of_trentu posted this video on their account. The following is an excerpt from the caption: “@trentpartylife, what the actual fuck are you doing promoting shit like this? It has been eight months, so if you’re still partying you have all the depth and insight of a pothole. Get your shit together, and get drunk ALONE in your DORM like the rest of us NORMAL people.”
Again, the comments were unyielding in their articulation of embarrassment and disgust. One student went as far as to say, “...at least his @ is there so he can get charged.”
@Trentu.confessions was also quick to contribute to the conversation, condemning the partygoers for endangering their community. On November 1, they published a poll to their story that asked followers to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: “Do you think people who went to unsafe parties (i.e. more than 10 people, no masks or distancing, etc) should be punished?”
Below the poll, @trentu.confessions wrote: “Other schools punish students for off-campus partying if it can be proven. Trent thus far has been a joke at responding to parties (remember the bridge party)? Now that we have video evidence of people ignoring COVID restrictions, wouldn’t now be a GREAT time to enforce some punishment?”
The story went on to read, “we want to see the guilty parties be punished for endangering others, regardless of if they were on campus or not.”
They went on to cite a CBC article dated September 17th, entitled “Queen’s students who ‘flagrantly’ break pandemic rules could be expelled,” as proof that it is within the Trent administration’s power to carry out sanctions against students for off-campus parties.
The article itself does not detail any instances of such sanctions coming into force for pandemic partygoers. It does feature an interview with Patrick Deane, the principal of Queen’s University, who says, “Should they be found guilty under the student code of conduct, they'll be subject to sanctions as stipulated in the code. Those sanctions do include the possibility of expulsion from the university.”
@Trentu.confessions went on to post screenshots from their DMs with followers who were complaining about the page’s shift towards conversations about COVID, its ‘political bias’, and voicing concerns over the admins’ ‘one-sidedness’.
One follower wrote, “You’re acting like you’re CNN. You’re a confession page.” This screenshot was accompanied by the statement: “FYI for people who can’t handle bias: this page is biased. We’re a confession page, not a fucking newspaper lmao?”
On Monday November 2, @trentu.confessions posted another screenshot from a disgruntled follower complaining about political bias, writing, “If a university is mainly leftist, and there is a pandemic going on: Surprise! Confessions will be left-leaning and might mention the plague.”
@Memes_of_Trentu would later post a response to a follower calling for the expulsion of the students in the shotgunning video. In their response, directed at President Leo Groarke, they write, “[Expulsion] is what your students actually want to happen. 95% of us are getting screwed by the 5% who cannot control themselves even when lives literally depend on it.” @Memes_of_Trentu didn’t cite the @trentu.confessions poll as their source for these numbers, but it certainly seems as though that is what they are alluding to.
The ‘Hack’ Job
On Tuesday November 3 (yes, the day of the American presidential election), sometime in the early afternoon, ‘@trentu.confessions’ became ‘@trentu.confessionshacked’ and the account’s bio was changed to “fucking liberals, let the people party *middle finger emjoi*.” All the posts on the account were removed shortly thereafter.
The account’s story was quickly littered with pro-Trump, (far) right-wing rhetoric - things like “Conservatives will not be silenced” and “#TRUMP2020” and claims that the COVID-19 pandemic is fake. The ‘hacker’ also threatened to hack other Trent-based meme and confessions pages that exhibit similar political biases. (I have chosen to use quotation marks around ‘hacker’ throughout this article for reasons that won’t fully become clear until the end of it.)
The longer this went on, the more bewilderingly stupid the posts became: “If COVID is real, why aren’t we taxing people to fund a vaccine?”, and “#Conservative #Thinking #Is #Too #Hard #For #Libs.”
The account tagged the Trent Conservatives in one of their stories, who responded clarifying that they had no part in the ‘hacking’, and condemning it, citing their commitment to free speech.
The ‘hacker’ posted a story that read, “Ready for libs to get triggered tonight… Vaccines aren’t real. Trump is gonna win. Adam and Eve. Trans men are *men* Trans women are *women*. Facts don’t care about [your] fucking feelings.”
It seems as though the ‘hacker’ had meant to be transphobic, but bungled their words, and actually said something not-transphobic-at-all. I could detail their posts further, but I am sure you all get the picture.
In the evening of November 3, @memes_of_trentu posted an update from the admins of @trentu.confessions prior to the hack, who wrote the following statement:
In the days following the election, @trentu.confessionshacked became @trentfortrump. As Americans counted votes and Trump falsely proclaimed victory, the ‘hacker’ updated the account’s story, spreading misinformation and complaining about results that were in Biden’s favour.
At one point the ‘hacker’ made a wager, that if Biden won, he would delete the account. When the election was called in Biden’s favour on November 7, the ‘hacker’ posted the following story:
The ‘hacker’ went on to announce that the account would remain in use, denying having made the aforementioned bet. At one point the ‘hacker’ addressed the previous admins, naming them, and saying “I know you’re watching.”
Finally, on November 8, the ‘hacker’ announced that he was deactivating the account, at the request of the previous admins, writing “It was nice to work with all of you.” However, the account does remain. The username has been changed to ‘@deactivated.trentconfess’.
The account - which once had over 2 000 followers - now has under 1 200.
Wrapped up in this entire sequence of events is a lot of confusion and uncertainty - who is this ‘hacker’? How did he gain access to the account? How did a right-wing troll get access to an admin’s gmail password? And of course there are a lot of why questions, too.
One thing that is certain is that @trentu.confessions is no more.
I wrote 1 500+ words about an Instagram account because I think there is a lot to unpack here about the relationship between anonymity and accountability, about the site of our collective moral conversations, about how we approach people who have transgressed COVID regulations, and about how punishment is woven into our culture. I am excited to explore these ideas in a future editorial. I hope that you’ll read it when it’s published, and that maybe it might start a conversation somewhere beyond the comment section on Instagram.