On Tuesday evening, students at the embattled University of Missouri noticed several disturbing messages on the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak.
“I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” read one.
“Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow,” said the second, echoing a warning posted to 4chan the day before the Umpqua Community College shooting last month.
University of Missouri police have said they apprehended Hunter M. Park, the 19-year-old suspected of posting both threats, and have reassured students that there’s no cause for further concern. (The school in Columbia, Mo., is operating normally, and classes have not been canceled.) Even if the threats were empty, however, they’re sure to inflame concerns over the ever-controversial Yik Yak, which only three weeks ago was panned by a coalition of 70 women’s and civil rights groups as a font of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
Yik Yak is essentially a public, anonymous, location-based message board: After downloading the app, you can post anything you want to nearby readers — who can then comment, up-vote or down-vote your “yak,” also anonymously.
Since it was founded by two recent college grads in 2013, the app has proven particularly popular among students, who often use it to trade the sorts of jokes and campus gossip that — in this ultra-Googleable age — they wouldn’t want to post under their real names. But it’s also posed major, repeat problems, at universities especially, when students abuse the app’s promise of anonymity.
“This sort of misbehavior is NOT what Yik Yak is to be used for. Period,” co-founder Brooks Buffington wrote in a statement about the Missouri threats. “It is not condoned by Yik Yak, and it violates our terms of service.”
Below are the SparkNotes on what may be the country’s most controversial social media app — and a few suggested ways for fixing it.
What is Yik Yak?
Yik Yak is an anonymous, location-based bulletin board that — per the analytics firm App Annie — has ranked among the top 30 social media apps in the United States almost constantly since 2014. The company has raised more than $73 million in funding, most of it from Silicon Valley powerhouse Sequoia Capital. It’s valued at between $200 million and $300 million.
While the app is popular among college students, it’s gotten lackluster reviews elsewhere. Common Sense Media, the children’s advocacy group, gives it a one star rating out of five — apparently because a zero-star option is not available. “Yik Yak’s just yucky,” the organization wrote. “It’s a gossipy, lewd, crass online environment in which anything goes.”
Why would anyone want to use something like that?
To be fair, Yik Yak is not all — or even mostly — bad. For the most part, students use it as a cross between Post Secret and a bar-bathroom wall: a place to post jokes, observations about college life or current events, and questions for other students. Slate’s Amanda Hess has argued, convincingly, that the app actually helps empower people who might otherwise be marginalized or ignored: certainly, there are plenty of instances in which students have used Yik Yak to spread positive messages or to draw attention to important causes.
On balance, however, Yik Yak is neither super-positive nor horrifically destructive — in fact, it’s pretty mundane. Imagine an endless scroll of gems like “party at TKE tonight” or “gonna fail my econ midterm today.”
Has Yik Yak had problems with threats or harassment in the past?
It has! So many problems, in fact, that on Oct. 21, a coalition of civil rights groups descended on Washington, D.C., to urge the Department of Education to issue guidelines against it. (The DoE has said it “looks forward to responding,” though it hasn’t yet.) At this rate, the app is fielding a new high-profile incident roughly every two weeks. A sampling:
- Threats of a mass shooting at Charleston Southern University and Cal Fresno State in November 2015
- Threats of a mass shooting at Emory University and Lee University in October 2015
- A spate of racist commentary at American University in October 2015
- Threats of a shooting at Florida Atlantic University in September 2015
- Threats of rape and murder at the University of Mary Washington in spring 2015
- “Racially offensive” messages at Clemson University in January 2015
- Sexually explicit comments about female professors at Eastern Michigan University in January 2015
- Threats of violence and sexual assault at Kenyon College in October 2014
- Threats of a “Columbine-like” shooting at Widener University, and of a “Virginia Tech part 2” at Towson University, in October 2014
- A sex tape posted (non-consensually) at Rowan University in September 2014
The list goes on, needless to say, but these are some of the events to make the news. Victims allege that a range of cyberbullying and malicious gossip goes down outside the spotlight, too.
If Yik Yak is anonymous, how have police identified the people posting threatening yaks?
Because nothing is truly anonymous these days! (News flash.) Per Yik Yak’s guidelines for law enforcement, the app logs your IP address, GPS coordinates and “user-agent string” — the technical details of your specific device — every time you post a message. Yik Yak also asks for your phone number the first time you post, which it keeps filed away in a database. Law enforcement can file a subpoena, court order, search warrant or emergency request for any of this information, which Yik Yak complies with on a “case-by-case” basis.
Once police have your phone number and device details, it’s a simple matter of cross-referencing those with your cell phone provider to get your name and other information.
Has Yik Yak done anything to combat threats or harassment?
Well, yes — but not as much as critics would hope. When the app launched in 2013, it was available to college and high school students. Yik Yak has since marked the app 17+ in the Apple and Google Play stores, a feature that allows parents to block younger kids from downloading it. They also partnered with a company called Maponics to draw “geofences” around elementary, middle and high schools, effectively making the app unavailable within a given distance from that location.
Since early 2015, Yik Yak has also displayed a warning when users attempt to post phone numbers or messages with certain keywords, such as “bomb”: “Pump the brakes,” it reads, in part, “this yak may contain threatening language.”
Still, many people have argued this isn’t enough and that Yik Yak needs to do more to protect users from abuse. While the app warns users not to “bully” other users or to “post other people’s phone numbers, street addresses … or other personally identifiable information,” the abuse filter does not screen for full names or addresses, which makes it a convenient tool for doxing. Yik Yak also provides a way for users to “flag” abusive yaks, but the company is far from transparent about how long it takes moderators to get to flagged messages.
What could Yik Yak do?
Aside from screening for the aforementioned names and addresses, the app could try a few things. A study published in the Journal of School Violence last year suggested using a program like Radian6 (which culls and analyzes social media posts in real time) to detect and monitor cyberbullying proactively. This could presumably be done on the part of Yik Yak’s moderators or by a third party.
Critics have also called on the app to hire more moderators, enforce stricter policies against abuse and introduce resources for people who have been harassed on Yik Yak.
In January, an 18-year-old woman named Elizabeth Long — who petitioned for the app to be shut down after she was brutally cyberbullied on it — praised Yik Yak for making many of these changes. In late October, however, Long posted an angry update: “They assured me that various new policies would go into effect that would protect kids from bullying and harassment on Yik Yak,” she wrote. “Nearly a year later, those promises have not held up.”
Can universities stop the app?
There’s very little that universities can do. At least a dozen have symbolically “banned” the app, or blocked access to it on their Wi-fi networks. That’s controversial, though, and pretty pointless: Students can still access the site via their phone’s data service.
The student government at the tiny College of Idaho asked Yik Yak to place a geofence around campus, the same method they use to block the app at high schools. (Yik Yak declined.) Others student groups have tried to get their peers to voluntarily give up the app: at Creighton University, the student union went so far as to hand out buttons that said “Above the Yak.”
What’s the next step for anti-Yik Yak advocates?
On Wednesday, the civil-rights coalition that first appealed to the DoE announced that they had a new tactic: going to Yik Yak’s investors, directly. In a statement emailed to the Post, the organization said they planned to release a letter to Sequoia Capital and Draper Fisher Jurvetson Venture on Thursday, asking them to urge Yik Yak to strengthen its policies against “hateful targeting and harassment of students on college campuses.” Several individuals have also used sites like Change.org and Care2 to start online petitions.
For better or worse, however, the most immediate way to stop harassment on Yik Yak may come from users themselves. A survey of students at the University of Texas, whose results were published in the book “New Media, New Ethics?”, found that users were far less likely to defend someone against bullying on Yik Yak than on Facebook. If students did stand up for each other, however, the norms on the app could change.
Until then, Yik Yak remains a pretty dicey place.
[This post has been updated multiple times since it was published.]
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