The rise of social messaging application Yik Yak on college campuses around the country has sparked concerns over cyberbullying, racism and sexual harassment.
Yik Yak is an anonymous forum that allows posts of 200 characters or fewer to be viewed by anyone within a two-mile radius. Users respond by “upvoting” posts they like and “downvoting” or reporting posts they dislike or find offensive; when a post receives enough downvotes, it is taken down. Designed for use by college students, the application is blocked at 85 percent of middle and high schools.
However, the anonymous nature of the application has raised concerns from universities. Norwich University in Vermont banned the application’s use on campus over cyberbullying, while Colgate University students were incited by racist posts on the application to stage a sit-in protest.
Yik Yak’s Lead Community Developer Cam Mullen stressed that Yik Yak does everything in its power to eradicate bullying and offensive posts, though he acknowledged it does occur.
“On Yik Yak, we do have instances of harassment or bullying, and it’s something we take really seriously and are constantly working against,” Mullen said. “If there is an immediate threat, for example a shooting threat, we immediately jump on that and will often contact police even before police contact us, and we work with them to try to track down this person,”
Since the company does not have any other identifying information about users, Mullen said that the company identifies threats using GPS locations and previous posts to find users.
University of Maryland Law School professor Danielle Citron, author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” said that the application’s self-regulation is not enough to protect users.
“When abusive content like rape threats, or privacy invasions, defamation appear on their services they are not legally responsible. They’re immune from liability. So they have no legal obligation,” she said.
Citron pointed at Yik Yak as a possible perpetuator of rape culture. She discussed an incident where a UMD student brought up a Yik Yak post that threatened a female guest speaker with rape.
“What followed were other threads suggesting she should be raped, with kind of graphic descriptions of how,” she said. “I imagine if it’s reported as abuse, they take it down, but sometimes the harm is already done. If you think about it, a rape threat is frightening to someone. And so, yes you take it down, but you take it down two days later and the person is pretty scared.”
Georgetown professor of psychology Sandra Calvert, specializing in research on information technologies and social behavior, pointed to a University of California, Los Angeles study that found that racist comments and attacks are more likely in online chat rooms when those chat rooms are unmonitored.
“I think that anytime you’re anonymous that one thing that happens is it gives you a certain element of freedom to say whatever you want because there are no consequences,” Calvert said. “So anytime you go into these public forums and there’s nobody watching you or kind of holding some kind of standards of appropriate behavior, then people are left to their own devices. So it can bring out some of the darker side of human interaction.”
However, Calvert noted that most comments [on public forums] had no real effects beyond the virtual world.
“A lot of it is innocuous,” she said.
Students who used the app agreed with Calvert, but did not see the app as a perpetuator of cyberbullying.
“I’ve seen offensive posts, but I think you take them for what they are. At least I’ve never felt really offended by any of them,” said Daniel Fain (COL ’18), who downloaded the app his second week at Georgetown. “If I felt like it actually named anyone personally, I think you can flag it as inappropriate, but I haven’t seen any that have actually marked anyone personally.”
Christina Graziano (MSB ’17) was similarly unconcerned about the app, faulting the people who misused the technology for any alarming content.
“I just think there are a couple people taking advantage of its anonymous nature and going too far with it. Like every app, someone goes too far with something,” Graziano said. “In general, I think it’s a really good outlet for people to be witty and funny, without a fear of being favorited or liked enough.”
Even with the general lack of concern on the campus, Citron urged students to understand the issues posed by social media through open discourse.
“I think the more we talk about it, the more we teach people how powerful these tools are and how it impacts people’s lives,” she said. “Having these conversations [is] incredibly important.”