Education

Yik Yak: Online bullying or free speech? College of Idaho tries to ban controversial app

The home page of Yik Yak, an app named after the ’50s novelty song “Yakety Yak,” features a cute cartoon yak and a sampling of witty observations from universities across the country.

From Princeton: “It’s been ‘one of those days,’ for like, 3 years now.”

From Georgia State: “I had a dream that I overslept and missed my 8 a.m. Sometimes dreams do come true.”

From New York University: “The barista just served me coffee and called me ‘my love.’ Took me four 4 months to call my girlfriend that ... it only took you 2 minutes and $2.26.”

But in practice, say students and officials at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, Yik Yak is anything but cute and witty. Its anonymous comments are crass and abusive, they say.

Yik Yak, a free app launched in 2013, uses GPS to determine a poster’s location, then groups posts together based on geography to create an anonymous, hyper-local chat room. Anyone inside that virtual room can post and read others’ posts. The app presumes that users are 18 or older, or at least 17 with parental permission. Yik Yak’s terms of use state that users will not use the app to “abuse, harass, stalk, threaten” and more. The app also has a self-policing feature that lets readers vote posts down.

Those safeguards have not stemmed negative commentary. Over the past school year, the campus safety office at College of Idaho has received seven reports from students who felt personally threatened by posts on Yik Yak, leaders say.

Amid those and other posts that President Marv Henberg called racist, misogynistic or “profane attacks on individuals,” the Student Senate passed a resolution this spring to make the school a Yik Yak-free zone.

Henberg said the app undermines the college’s sense of community and goes against its honor code.

“If someone puts a racist epithet on a Latino’s door, or a black person’s door, there’s at least a potential evidence thread that can be investigated,” he said. “Not with Yik Yak.”

College of Idaho isn’t alone in its anti-Yak stance. If you Google “Yik Yak” and “controversy,” you’ll turn up scores of articles around the country. A recent article in The Washington Post noted the case of a student at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia who was murdered by a roommate. She had been threatened with rape on Yik Yak before her death, though there’s no clear link between those threats and her death.

In March, College of Idaho leaders asked the app maker to install a “geo-fence” to disable the app on campus. Yik Yak offers that service on its website with this caveat: “Ask nicely and we’ll build it for you.” The app makers have installed geo-fences around high schools and middle schools in response to bullying.

Yik Yak, which has 1 million downloads and recently won the Fastest Rising Startup Award at the 8th Annual TechCrunch Crunchies event, joining the likes of Snapchat and Upworthy, has yet to respond to the Caldwell college’s request, said Henberg. The Statesman was not able to reach Yik Yak officials for comment.

MAKING A STATEMENT

Student Sen. Matt Vraspir proposed the anti-Yik Yak resolution after speaking with campus counselors and learning of the student reports to the campus safety office.

“There are a few people in every community who will do what they can to harm other students, even at The College of Idaho” said Vraspir, a political economics major from Boise. “So we did what many colleges have done: We got together to make a statement against Yik Yak.”

Vraspir has been the brunt of personal insults through the app. While people posting “yaks” can post anonymously, they can use initials to identify the subjects of their posts. Posters have been critical of Vraspir’s actions in student government, comparing him unfavorably to the duplicitous character known as the Governor on “The Walking Dead.”

“I don’t let myself get bothered,” said Vraspir, “but I know that if it’s happening to me, it’s happening to other students.”

Student President Miguel Robles Tapia, a Caldwell native majoring in art and theater, has not been personally attacked on Yik Yak, but he’s read ugly posts. He voted for the resolution.

Some Yik Yak posts have been positive, he said, like those encouraging school spirit. The app’s creators, two former students at Furman University in South Carolina, and fans of the app have said that Yik Yak has been a force for good, raising donations during blood drives or putting out the request for aid during emergencies. In one instance at the University of Michigan, an anonymous suicide note posted on Yik Yak caused a campuswide discussion on mental health.

“But the negativity tends to overshadow things,” said Tapia, who does acknowledge that people intent on spreading criticism anonymously can always find a way to do it.

A couple years ago, an anonymous “Yotes Confessional” Facebook page had some similar content, said Tapia. College staffers were able to have the page removed because of its unauthorized use of the college name. Yik Yak has proved more elusive. And, in any case, a request for a geo-fence would be largely symbolic since students and anyone else in the community would be free to use the app outside the fence.

“It’s not a solution, because we can’t police the community of Caldwell,” said Henberg, “but at least we want to make this gesture for the campus.”

If Yik Yak continues to ignore the college’s request for a geo-fence, the college’s IT department will ban the app on the college’s wireless network, said college spokesman Jordan Rodriguez.

Besides the Statesman, reporters for other newspapers and TV networks have reported not being successful in reaching Yik Yak for comment.

CAMPUS CENSORSHIP

The College of Idaho’s attempts to rid its campus of Yik Yak has raised questions from students who defended anonymity and free speech. After the Student Senate passed the resolution against Yik Yak, students took to the app to share their displeasure, said Tapia.

“They asked why everyone should lose the service because of a few bad cases,” he said.

Tapia, Vraspir and Henberg are united in their belief that cracking down on Yik Yak doesn’t impinge on free speech.

“If you’re willing to harass, libel and spread rumors, then you should be on a soap box so everyone can see you do it,” said Vraspir.

Henberg said he thought “long and hard” before making the case for the anti-Yik Yak resolution to the college board of trustees.

“Free speech, at least in the academic context, requires full debate and the ownership of one’s opinions. You have to know the source before you can have free and open debate,” he said.

The only instance on campus in which anonymity is acceptable is in cases of whistleblowing where someone fears retaliation for reporting bad behavior, Henberg said.

“This is anything but an attack on free speech,” he said. “It’s a defense of free speech.”

Leo Morales, acting executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, said he’s not taking a position on Yik Yak, but he’s keeping an eye on questions that arise from its use.

“What’s at stake here is the broader principle of expression. Even if it’s at a private institution like The College of Idaho, the message the ban on Yik Yak sends could be concerning, particularly at a university where expression should be protected and supported,” said Morales.

Rather than banning an app, he said, there may be ways to deal with the causes of harassment and bullying at colleges and universities “at a deeper level.”

Yik Yak has not become a problem at Boise State, a spokeswoman said, though a 2014 article in the campus paper The Arbiter noted an increase in Yik Yak use.

The app also has not caused concerns at College of Western Idaho, said a spokesman. Officials at the University of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene University were not available for comment.

The College of Idaho might be “the canary in the coal mine,” said Henberg, “because we’re a close-knit community.”

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