Anonymous app is wreaking havoc on college campuses.

By Carlos Diaz Barriga

Before publishing a post on the social media app Yik Yak, users are asked, “What’s on your mind?”

The answers to that question have been triggering student controversies nationwide.

Last fall, American University students printed copies of Yik Yak posts containing racial slurs and pasted them around campus, according to the Washington Post. In response, the university’s president, Neil Kerwin, wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper, condemning the Yik Yak posts and announcing a series of discussions with students and faculty on inclusion and addressing racism.

In November 2015, the University of Missouri’s student newspaper reported that two Yik Yak posts “caused campus-wide panic.” According to the newspaper, one of the posts read “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.”

This year, the Tennessee-based Southern Adventist University’s student newspaper reported the university blocked Yik Yak from its Wi-Fi network after racially insensitive posts appeared during a Black Christian Union prayer service.

And these are just some examples from dozens nationally.

Apps like Yik Yak are taking the safe space issue away from the classrooms and bringing it to anonymous spaces. Meanwhile, universities and students are left to wonder who’s responsible when it comes to problematic posts.

“The app is not helping our community.”

Using the app

Yik Yak is a location-based social network, available as an app in the Android and iOS app stores. It lets users share posts with their “herd” – what Yik Yak calls the users around you – within a 1.5 mile radius on a college campus.

Its main feature is that users can be anonymous. Previously, users were not able to have a username. However, on March 8 Yik Yak introduced the option of having a “handle” (like a username), but users are not required to use one and can continue to post anonymously.

Users share a wide range of posts, from jokes, to questions, to advice and, sometimes, support. Yet, since its creation in 2013, the app has come under fire for how some college students are using it.

Yik Yak Screenshots

Screenshots of posts taken from the Yik Yak Android app at three different Washington, D.C. college campuses. (Left) Taken at American University, April 13, 2016; (Center) Taken at Georgetown University, March 5, 2016; (Right) Taken at George Washington University, March 22, 2016. Note: These are not necessarily the works of anyone associated with or attending the university. These are just tags the Yik Yak programming assigned to the nearest large identifiable geographic fixture. (Screenshots: Carlos Diaz Barriga)

Ban it or keep it?

The University of Rochester has been dealing with controversial Yik Yak posts for the past year. In response, the university released a statement, saying it was made aware on Feb. 20, 2015 of Yik Yak posts that were “offensive and threatening to some students.” It asked the Rochester District Attorney’s office to issue a subpoena to Yik Yak to identify the users and emailed a letter to Yik Yak asking to take down the posts and suspend the users. Yik Yak responded to the university’s letter on March 11, 2015, confirming it had banned the users. On Nov. 23, 2015, another “threatening post” was published

In response to these incidents, the University of Rochester created a Commission on Race and Diversity on Nov. 23.

The commission published an interim report on Jan. 31 that included a section on Yik Yak, where it stated that “blocking access would signal strong public support of our students.” On Feb. 3, Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester, released a statement where he said he would not support a ban, as it would be “ineffectual and counterproductive.”

The next day, a group of students gathered on campus to protest the president’s decision.

SeQuoia Kemp, a senior at the University of Rochester, is one of the students supporting the ban. Kemp, president of the Black Students’ Union, said banning Yik Yak would be “a symbolic act” in support of students of color.

“The app is not helping our community,” Kemp said.

For Kemp, the posts on Yik Yak became increasingly violent and threatening around the time students protested in solidarity with Ferguson and the Michael Brown case.

Kemp said the app has had a “venomous effect” and “psychological impact” on some of the students of color. She said the Yik Yak posts in question contained violent threats to this population segment, as well as racial slurs.

“I don’t feel unsafe because of the app, I feel unsafe not knowing which one of my peers are making the comments,” Kemp said about Yik Yak’s anonymity.

Can you fight it?

Edward Dunn, a junior at La Salle University, said last fall racially offensive Yik Yak posts appeared around the university’s campus. The posts targeted students of color.

Dunn said these posts “really picked up” in October and lasted well through December. At the height of the situation, when the racist posts were being posted daily, the dean of students sent a campus-wide email condemning the posts.

After the email, Dunn said professors discussed the issue in class and the university’s student newspaper ran an editorial against it.

Dunn said a ban on the app would restrict the students’ freedom of expression. “If it starts with one app, it can lead to other apps and banning websites,” he said.

A campus-wide panel was held on Feb. 10 to discuss the Yik Yak posts, involving students and faculty. While the panel was helpful, Dunn said, it didn’t target the people who were anonymously posting racist comments.

“Someone in the crowd said ‘we’re not the people who need to be here.’”

Dunn said the racist Yik Yak posts have begun appearing again this spring.

Professor: ‘Talk to each other’

Daniel Cooper, a freshman at Northwestern University, is a daily user of the app.

Cooper said he sees both innocuous comments as well as posts that attack people’s race or gender. However, Cooper said Northwestern University has a good “self-regulatory community” in Yik Yak, as offensive comments are quickly removed because of downvotes (if a post receives more than five downvotes, it’s deleted from the feed.)

Cooper said there’s already “strong pressure” at Northwestern University to “not offend anyone” and “not go against the grain.” He said this pressure pushes the “controversial thoughts” to anonymous spaces like Yik Yak.

There’s no clear answer from the universities on how to address racist posts on Yik Yak. There are varied responses to these incidents, from creating commissions on diversity and inclusion to banning the app altogether.

“It’s hard to say what the most appropriate university response is,” Dunn said. “Some people will take the most extreme route, and some people will say ‘don’t do anything, people should learn by themselves.’”

The Newseum Institute and the Knight Foundation sponsored the “Free Speech on Campus” conference on April 2 an event that highlighted the challenges of freedom of expression on college campuses. At the conference, Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor at Syracuse University, said talking anonymously on social media apps like Yik Yak and Twitter is “not enough” to discuss ideas for change.

“We need to talk to each other in person,” said Grygiel.

When reached for comment, Yik Yak provided links to its safety guidelines as well as a November 2015 blog post that condemned “misbehavior” on the app.