Boredom led to the inception of the controversial Instagram page “AU Confessions” in September 2019. Christopher Mata, then a freshman at Andrews University, had come up with the idea of starting an anonymous “confessions” outlet after hearing his friends criticize another campus social media page that “trash talked the chapels and complained.”
At first, he ignored the idea. But sitting in his room, bored out of his mind, he romanticized the idea and eventually succumbed to it. He created the Instagram page—whose name was intended to evoke a sense of edginess—and it was quickly followed by many of his fellow students on campus.
The page took off, earning additional followers as soon as it launched. The first confession, submitted on September 20, 2019, shared how a student had gotten through the university cafeteria for two weeks without using their student ID. Always anonymous, each confession revealed something enticingly unknown yet (usually) not obscenely scandalous.
One person confessed that they had enrolled at Andrews in pursuit of a relationship with a girl. Another said they used to park their car at the nearby grocery store to avoid parking fees. Another asked for relationship advice. Some confessions were more high-strung than others. “I have a crush on my teacher. I love how nice he is,” one person wrote. “I wish I was ten years older.”
Eventually, Mata gave the page and its 2,590 followers to another freshman after he graduated in 2023. Still, what started as something funny and slightly tongue-in-cheek has become a staple of many Andrews student’s social media diet.
Ubiquitous at Universities
Campus confession pages have existed for long before Adventists campuses jumped on the bandwagon. Some date back to Facebook groups in 2012. They are global, but basically run the same. Both sides of the equation—the person running the page and the person submitting the anonymous confession—remain anonymous, thus removing the typical consequences associated with potentially contentious or offensive online speech. Eventually, the true definition of “confession” is lost, and the pages become centers for parties to post whatever happens to be on their minds, whether it is the malfunctioning laundry facilities in the dorm, a crush, or a personal mental health concern. A few have found assistance through the pages, asking for help finding lost belongings or recommendations for services. In more severe cases, suicide notes and rape allegations have surfaced.
Over the past several years, the Instagram pages have served as fodder for campus conflict. Some academic administrators have denounced the pages, at one point even urging students not to “roast” talent show performances at an Andrews event. Students have complained that an aura of toxicity is bred through the supposedly private online forums. The effects of these rogue Instagram pages are debated yearly. Yet, they seem to survive, or even thrive, despite the occasional harsh criticism and continual controversy.
A Voice for the Voiceless?
Not following the pages is like plugging your ears to the whispers surrounding college campuses. “It's fun to feel like you're connected to the beating heart of communication on campus,” said Lily Burke, a senior majoring in Anthropology, English literature, and Spanish at Andrews. She thinks it's FOMO—fear of missing out—that keeps people connected to these pages. “The thought is, ‘Oh, some drama's going to happen, and I'm going to be the one asking my friends to show me their phones.’”
Annelise Jacobs, a senior majoring in communication at Union College, agrees. Currently serving as the student association president at Union, she said she likes knowing what people are saying on campus. For her, Union’s Confessions page is a strong indicator of the “underbelly” of the institution. And, sometimes, the outlets can be used for positivity. “Some posts ask legitimate questions about the college or social situations,” Jacobs said in an email. “Whenever that happens, there is a great group of people following the account that quickly respond with helpful and kind answers.”
Yet, the confession pages are falsely seen as a safe space to vent, according to Amanda Blake, a senior journalism major at Southern Adventist University and the editor-in-chief of the Southern Accent newspaper. “You’re anonymous, nobody’s going to know it was you who said this negative thing or asked this embarrassing question.” She thinks the outlet’s ethos speaks to broader societal issues with social media and the internet.
“It provides quick and emotional reactions, so people don’t feel like they’re screaming into a void if they have a grievance,” Burke added. “And it is entertaining, of course. It appeals to the more base parts of us.”
Following these pages is inevitable, according to Chris Ngugi, editor of the Student Movement newspaper at Andrews. They’re full of gossip, and it’s fun. Plus, they’re popular because the pages give the voiceless a voice, he said. “If you don’t think the university will listen to you if you complain about a chapel speaker, a teacher, or even an abuse of power, you don’t have to rely on the people in charge anymore; you can just share your perspectives with hundreds to thousands of people who will listen instead.”
Cyberbullying and False Gossip?
A different perspective emerges among those targeted through a “confession.”
Ephram Otodo, a sophomore business and public relations student at Southern, is someone who has been mentioned several times in anonymous posts.
When you’re not mentioned, he said, it’s funny. But when the spotlight is shined on you—it’s different. “When your name comes up, you're like, oh my gosh, who's talking about me?” he said.
Otodo has been mentioned a total of four times on SAU Confessions. The first time, someone said that he was “thirsty for women”—a slang term that is most frequently used to say someone is desperate for sex. Someone defended him in a later post, but a third post attempted to insult Otodo, saying that he “is a little gay.” In the last post that mentioned Otodo, someone said that they were “90-percent sure that Ephram is gay.”
While it bugged him at first, it wasn’t something that he hyper-focused on. “If you really knew me, everything negative that's been mentioned about me would be debunked just based on knowing me,” he said. It was disorienting—but just that. Otodo woke up the following day and realized that a “small post” was not enough to bring him down. He noted, however, that his experience may not be reflective of what others see.
“This is the first semester where I'm focused purely on studies. I'm locked in, and people are commenting from the outside,” he said. He holds himself in high confidence and mused that perhaps those who submitted the comments didn’t have such high self-esteem. “I feel a little bad for people who are judging or making comments about me because it's usually a form of self-projection.”
Useful for Openness about Sexuality and Sexual Assualt?
The popularity of AU Confessions escalated significantly after Thanksgiving in 2019. That week, Mata decided to publish sexual assault allegations against a prominent student worship leader at Andrews.
He had been receiving allegations from male students regarding this person—who is also male—since the page's inception, but he doubted the veracity of the claims. It was impossible to fact-check such claims, which Mata said he tried to do when specific people were mentioned in a “confession.” The turning point came when a victim sent a direct message, bypassing the anonymity offered by submitting confessions through the link on the page.
“It was somebody that I personally know, and they told me their story. It left me speechless,” he said. Mata was left in a precarious position, unsure how to respond. The victim also said that 15 other people wanted to reach out to the page and share their stories. “They told me that they had reached out several times to [university] administration, but the administration hadn't done anything about it. They were kind of sick and tired of asking for help and nothing happening.”
Mata collected a series of longer “confessions” from the victims and organized them to be posted. Sitting with his family at the dinner table on Thanksgiving, he fully realized the gravity of the situation. The poignant allegations could end the professional life of the person accused. The confessions would send waves throughout the small campus. He held the future in his hands.
He decided to “let the person enjoy their Thanksgiving” and post the allegations on November 28, 2019. “I woke up, posted it, and the page just blew up.”
In a response later posted on AU Confessions, the student worship leader said he had been misunderstood and had suffered mental anguish over his sexual orientation and the allegations. Still, according to Mata, the worship leader left campus and didn’t return.
A remarkably similar scene played out at Southern on the cusp of 2023. Rape, pedophilia, and assault allegations arrived in the queue of SAU Confessions on January 3, 2023. They were soon posted for the public to see, including a detailed account by an underage woman who said a theology major sexually assaulted her.
The allegations fueled a flurry of other posts. Some vehemently defended the victim, while others were sure the victim was lying. At one point, someone sent in a confession that said, “SAU stands for sexual assault university.” The frenzy even got out of control for the person running SAU Confessions. On January 6, the page administrator announced that they would no longer publish sexual assault allegations.
Who Is the Decider?
Perhaps the most elusive part of a social media confessions page is the person who controls it. Mata didn’t reveal his identity until he stopped running AU Confessions, and even then, he declined to provide details on the person currently behind the page. The identity of the person who manages UC Confessions remains under wraps, just as most Walla Walla students aren’t aware of who ran the now defunct confessions page there.
That is no longer the case for SAU Confessions, however. In a now-deleted late-night Instagram Live broadcast, Jordan Bonnick, a former theology student at Southern, admitted that he manages the ever-controversial confessions page. And, he claimed he would be giving away the extensive account and handing management over to someone else of his choosing.
The trigger for such a revelation was Spectrum’s request to interview him for this story.
After agreeing to an interview, Bonnick identified himself as “Nathan Anderson,” a senior theology major at Southern. During the interview, he deflected descriptors such as “gossip house” and “destructive,” paralleling SAU Confessions with “drama in your congregation at church.”
“Just because this is done in public instead of behind people's backs, it comes under scrutiny,” he said. Bonnick said that he only moderated “extremely lewd” confessions, such as sexual and drug-related content. “There's nothing holding me back,” Bonnick said, explaining that he wished to remain a neutral party and a facilitator.
Almost immediately afterward, Bonnick asked for anonymity despite being on the record throughout the short interview. After fact-checking the name Bonnick gave during the interview and finding that he is not a student at Southern, Spectrum declined to allow Bonnick to remain anonymous.
“Why would anyone care that a college drama page was involved in drama?” he asked in response, declining to discuss further.
Days later, on October 30, 2023, he decided to identify himself on his own timeline by starting a late-night live stream on the Instagram page while eating at a Panda Express. Pinning the blame on Spectrum for his decision to out himself throughout the hour-long broadcast, he allowed several spectators to join the live stream and faced a barrage of tough questions regarding his leadership.
“Do you think SAU Confessions has done more harm than good?” one person asked.
Bonnick didn’t think so. There’s a purpose for SAU Confessions, and he said that “any form of free speech is going to have people upset.” He expounded his thoughts, saying that third parties, such as Southern Adventist University administration and Spectrum, may want to see the page shut down. Questioned on whether it is appropriate for a theology student to head up such a controversial outlet, he said that vilifying him would mean ignoring allegations of abuse, particularly within the Southern theology department.
The intensity of the questioning increased as the live stream went on. Another person asked, “Since you’re a theology major, did you think about whether it would be good or bad, lifting lies rather than Jesus? Because Satan is the father of all lies.” Bonnick said he “didn’t really give a [expletive]” and that he “ran the page because he wanted to run the page.”
The climax arrived around 45 minutes into the stream, which by then had vacillated between wildly unusual to uncomfortably tense. A woman joined the live-stream and warned Bonnick that his management of the digital confessional could get him “kicked out” of Southern. After learning he wasn’t a student there, she asked, “If you don’t go here anymore, why are you so worried about what everyone’s doing here?” Dubbing it “high school drama,” she continued to press Bonnick, even going as far as saying that he was “ruining people’s lives.”
“You’re just mad because I’m calling you out on your [expletive],” she said, as Bonnick struggled to remove her from the live stream. He replied that he “didn’t really give a [expletive].” Raising his voice, he said the “same people whose lives he is ruining” engage in the same discourse elsewhere. “It’s funny because it’s high school [expletive], and we’re grown,” the woman replied. Bonnick eventually got the last word, but not before saying that the confessions page was ultimately for his entertainment, as well as others. “People enjoy it,” he said. “If people didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t follow it.”
A Underground Marketplace?
José Bourget, Assistant Vice President for Faith Engagement at Andrews, finds that the presence of AU Confessions is cathartic for students. “It's instantaneous. You put it out there, and students may get immediate responses from other students about what they think or feel about it,” he said in an interview.
While Bourget doesn’t have an entirely negative view of social media confession pages, he also has said there are days when it’s “very annoying.” “I don't know that I enjoy AU Confessions, but I also don't know that it's meant for my enjoyment.”
He likened it to an underground marketplace where students can discuss experiences and perspectives while remaining anonymous. But, he said the Instagram page also better informs his ministry. “From a care point, sometimes students will share things there that would be valuable for us to know about a particular personal need or challenge, and I can go respond to it,” he said.
Bourget is one of many academic leaders who follow AU Confessions. Other administrators, including Provost Christon Arthur, also follow the page and have occasionally offered their help or assistance.
Still, an overarching feeling that the confession outlets have a net negative effect on Adventist college and university campuses lingers.
“I think there is a sense of community cultivated through this platform that can be positive, but there is a lot of bullying that goes on,” said Alana Crosby, a Southern graduate and former editor-in-chief of the Southern Accent newspaper. “We don't know what people are struggling with. College can be a confusing and lonely time, and it may just take one anonymous comment from a student, who may just think they are being funny, to break someone.”
Ngugi, a Psychology and Spanish double major with pre-law, has a different take. He said that the Andrews University and Berrien Springs community is already small. These online spaces “just make them smaller” and give the campus a false feeling of closeness. “You end up knowing about a lot of people without actually knowing them. Whether that is positive or negative in the long run is to be seen.”
Samuel Girven is the Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum. You can reach out to him by emailing email@example.com.
Title image by Spectrum.
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