The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some Virginia students, school officials struggle with anonymous bullying and hate speech on Yik Yak app

Students, family and friends gather at the steps of George Washington Hall to honor Grace Mann’s life in Fredericksburg, Va., in April 2015. (Reza A. Marvashti/For The Washington Post)

School officials and student leaders in recent years have struggled to address an issue confounding college campuses nationwide: how to deal with the sometimes funny, but frequently malicious, social media posts on the mobile app Yik Yak.

At the University of Virginia, the app is widely used, extremely popular and broadly criticized. The app works by allowing users within close proximity to read and post anonymous comments. Yik Yak first took hold on the Charlottesville campus last year, and, in recent months, the app has become a cauldron of hate speech.

Members of the U-Va. chapter of Phi Kappa Psi were called rapists on the app after Rolling Stone published an account — later retracted after it was found to be deeply flawed — of a gang rape that allegedly happened in the fraternity house. A Charlottesville police investigation later concluded no such attack occurred at Phi Psi, but the fraternity members said their reputations had already been damaged. The fraternity chapter announced in April it planned to sue Rolling Stone.

After a black student was arrested by a group of white Alcoholic Beverage Control officers in March, the app was bombarded with racist comments and disparaging remarks about the junior, Martese Johnson.

Student council president Abraham Axler said that Yik Yak serves as a platform for anonymous, sniping comments. He said that there is little student leaders can do to moderate use of Yik Yak or the statements made on the app.

[Feminists at Mary Washington say they were threatened on Yik Yak]

“Even if you get rid of Yik Yak, people still have these thoughts,” said Axler, a junior. “The key is to explain to people how harmful these yaks can be. . .It creates chaos and rumors and nonsense that’s distracting and hostile.”

Eva Alvarado, a freshman, said that some of her peers have started to delete Yik Yak from their phones because of racist language. She recalled one episode where the Black Student Association protested in the campus library, and students took to the app to disparage the demonstration.

“No one would act that way outright in person to the Black Student Association,” said Alvarado. “Yik Yak is the opportunity for people to express opinions that normally wouldn’t be expressed.”

Ben Gorman, a junior who is president of the Inter-Fraternity Council and a member of Phi Psi, said the app has had a negative impact on campus.

“It perpetuates bad behavior by allowing people to anonymously post ignorant and sometimes pretty nasty comments,” said Gorman. “The worst part is that posters don’t typically see the results of their post or the hurt they might be inflicting on other individuals. However, I do think the app is useful in that it brings to light issues that people tend to think are eradicated, such as racism. Behind the veil of anonymity, individuals post things without filters of political correctness — and I think the app helps demonstrate that these views still exist despite appearances otherwise.”

In Fairfax County, administrators struggled in the fall when students were bullied on the app. Nardos King, principal of Mount Vernon High School, said that Yik Yak caused stress to her students.

“It was an app that allowed mean people to have a voice,” said King. “Nothing positive came from that app whatsoever for my school. There were kids saying they didn’t want to come to school because people were being mean.”

King later worked with Yik Yak to make the app inaccessible from school grounds. Soon after, the app lost popularity among the students and complaints about online bullying related to Yik Yak disappeared.