It looks so innocuous.
Type “Sarahah.com” in your browser and you’ll see a very simple page which hardly conjures the controversy of recent headlines. Nor was it meant to.
Last week a local high school added security and disciplinary measures after one student was threatened and another arrested, following abuse of this social media site. Ironically, such destructive behavior was the opposite of what Sarahah’s Saudi creator, developer Zain al-Abdin Tawfiq, intended with the app.
Launched in November 2016, by the following July Sarahah was in high demand in dozens of countries, among the top three most-downloaded mobile apps.
Sarahah (pronounced “Sarah-ah”) means “honesty” or “candor” in Arabic. Tawfiq intended Sarahah as a workplace feedback tool; users are invited to anonymously share constructive — emphasis on constructive, complete with smiley-faced reminders — criticism to help others grow and improve. The site invites users to get honest feedback from coworkers, identify areas for improvement, and enhance friendships by discovering strengths and weaknesses.
After users set up an account, they can share their profile with friends or on other social media (profiles are also searchable). Then anyone can send anonymous messages that appear in their feed. “Reply” posts are not an option.
Like many other social media sites, especially when anonymity is present, Sarahah quickly devolved into an easy target for destructive uses such as bullying. Especially among teens. The company added a tool so users can block senders, but by then the damage usually is already done.
Users can opt out of using profile photos, but some youth have posted unclothed or inappropriate photos of themselves, thus generating lewd or hurtful comments in response. In fact, mean and bullying comments are happening regardless of photo or invitation, innocence
While it takes a little doing, Sarahah’s settings allow opting out of allowing a user’s real name or profile photo to appear in searches, which would reduce exposure. Users have reported the app can also access a phone’s contacts and import them automatically, although the company has tweeted that this will change to an opt-in feature for newer versions. Users can also opt out of allowing unregistered Sarahah users to comment.
Nevertheless, nothing prevents registered users from sharing profile names with unknown or undesired users. Or from bullying.
Commonsense Media, a nonprofit which helps parents and educators deal with children’s media use, recommends discussing Sarahah with children. Discuss the downsides of anonymous apps, including how they encourage and empower some people to be meaner, knowing they can’t be identified, won’t face their targets, or suffer consequences. Teens can enjoy participating in social media with friends while avoiding unnecessary risk and drama. Commonsense also advises discussing strategies for how to handle online insults or abuse.
Fully effective policing online simply isn’t possible, although “decloaking” anonymity would certainly decrease abuse.
Where does one person’s right to online privacy end? Where another’s human rights begin.
Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.