Since its creation just over a year ago, the anonymous social media app Yik Yak has massively grown in popularity on college campuses across the country. Unlike social networks like Facebook or Twitter, Yik Yak allows messages to be sorted by geographic location with posts only able to be seen within a 1.5-mile radius of the user. Due to this feature, the app creates the perfect online message board for college students to voice their opinions and thoughts regarding local hot topics without anyone knowing who posts each message.
Yik Yak’s homepage describes itself as a platform to “share your thoughts with people around you while keeping your privacy.” But what happens when seemingly harmless chatter turns into threats and cyberbullying?
Like many college campuses, Etown is now facing this problem, sending out a message regarding this issue to the campus community late on Tuesday, March 31 after it was brought to the attention of Dean of Students Marianne Calenda.
The email described how derogatory statements and threats of personal violence were made towards transgender, non-gender conforming, lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
According to Yik Yak’s frequently asked questions page, threats cannot be posted without repercussions. “We take threats to safety very seriously and cooperate with local authorities if there’s a post that poses a threat to people.”
A bomb threat at Michigan State University in November of 2014 caused Yik Yak to release the identity of a student to authorities. The student was consequently arrested within two hours of the posted threat.
For the most part, the app leaves the responsibility to the local users to manage the content by “upvoting” or “downvoting” specific posts. The “yak” will disappear after five users downvote it.
According to Yik Yak’s questions page, and the federal Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., Yik Yak is restricted from disclosing their user account information “without the lawful consent of the account holder or unless authorized by a properly issued warrant, court order or subpoena. As a result, Yik Yak can only respond to requests for user account information that are received directly from a law enforcement agency pursuant to appropriate legal process.”
“Engaging in speech that could have negative legal or educational consequences means the speaker has faith that Yik Yak will value his or her privacy over the negative publicity that results from coverage of offensive speech online,” Dr. Matthew Telleen of the communications department said, asserting that the controversy is more philosophical than legal.
No students have been identified in the Elizabethtown College situation yet. “When collaborating with local police, there is limited opportunity to secure identity information from Yik Yak; we will continue to investigate these options,” Calenda said.
In response to the situation, Campus Security is now providing additional rounds in Founders Hall and asking that students “share any screen shots or other relevant information about the recent posts with Campus Security,” Calenda said.
The LGBTQ community expressed gratitude for Dean Calenda’s campus-wide message. According to junior social work major Sarah Fender, “Many of the LGBTQ students on campus expressed that they were afraid to move around campus alone because of the Yik Yak conversations.”
As a result of the widespread fear, a committee formed by the Social Work Student Association is organizing an awareness day to be held on April 13 that will provide students an opportunity to sign a petition demanding the College to take action to ban Yik Yak on campus. Students are encouraged to wear purple and use the hashtag “#EtownIllWalkWithYou” to show additional, long-term support for Etown’s LGBTQ community.
However, Dr. April Kelly-Woessner, professor of political science, feels that “a Yik Yak ban is highly ineffective on a college campus.”
In a recent article by New York Times columnist Jonathan Mahler, it was said that schools have the ability to block access to Yik Yak on their Wi-Fi networks, but this can be controversial because it deals with the freedom of speech. Speaking practically, it still would not completely stop students from using the app because it would still be usable through their phones’ cell service.
Both Kelly-Woessner and Telleen pointed out that Yik Yak is completely voluntary, so taking legal action may not be realistic. “No one is a captive audience. Since it is prone to the sort of abuse we have seen lately, people can simply choose not to engage in a forum that lacks accountability,” Kelly-Woessner said.
Yik Yak posts that concern members of the administration also include those suggesting that several students have considered committing suicide.
“I strongly encourage Yik Yak users to immediately refer anyone who needs help to Campus Security at (717) 361-1111. We can connect students with a counselor or other on-call support staff. A campus response team is available 24/7.”
While the school does not have a definite plan in place to eliminate the problem completely, as its aspect of anonymity renders it difficult to identify perpetrators, administrators are working to understand the best means of preventing further issues arising from students’ participation on the social network.