By Sage Lazzaro
Editor’s Note: In response to what seemed to be a growing trend of hate speech on college campuses across the U.S., RoomZoom set out to investigate. We found a commonality among most incidents; the app Yik Yak was a key player in each one. The app cannot be blamed for the sentiments expressed on it but it has become a powerful medium for such speech; the app is used on more than 2,000 college campuses and has an estimated 3.6 million monthly active users, so we decided take a closer look at this common thread. We will publish the story in three installments; Part II will go up tomorrow and Part III will go up Wednesday.
Part I: What Happens on Yik Yak?
The Girl With the Petition
In March of 2014, only a few months after being released from the hospital for attempting suicide, 17-year-old Elizabeth Long attempted to take her life again. She was being bullied by fellow students at her Atlanta, Georgia high school who were targeting her on a new, anonymous social media app that had just exploded in popularity. “Elizabeth L. needs to stop bitching about how she almost killed herself and go ahead and do it” read one post.
Elizabeth Long isn’t the only young person to have been targeted on YikYak in a way that resulted in real world consequences. While the app, which functions like a hyper-local, anonymous Twitter, succeeds in its purpose of allowing college students to exchange jokes and tips about where to find free food on campus, it is also a breeding ground for bullying and hatred towards individuals and groups. Racism, especially, runs rampant on the two-year-old app, which is used widely by high school students and on over 2,000 college campuses as well.
After harming herself a second time at the behest of her anonymous, app-wielding classmates Long was eventually released from the hospital. She decided to turn the experience into one of civic engagement, starting a petition on change.org titled “Shut Down the app ‘Yik Yak,” in which she detailed her story and the harmful way the app is being used:
“…the app has turned into a haven for bullying, threats, and hate speech, mostly focused on kids in middle school and high school. I know this, because it happened to me.
My name is Elizabeth. I’m 18 years old, and earlier this year I tried to commit suicide. While still recovering, I started seeing messages about me on Yik Yak, anonymously telling me that I should kill myself.”
The petition went viral and earned more than 81,000 signatures, many from teachers and parents of teenagers who were also targeted on the app. The comments section told their stories, and far too many mirrored Long’s in that they resulted in physical harm.
The success of her petition helped Long get a meeting with Yik Yak’s founders, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, both Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers who graduated from Furman University in 2013, Droll with a degree in Information Technology and Buffington with a degree in accounting. The pair now live in Atlanta, Georgia and have remained relatively quiet in the tech world despite raising more than $73 million from some of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious and respected venture capital firms.
During the meeting “I shared my story and we talked about what they were doing to prevent bullying,” Long told RoomZoom. “I left there, like, “Go Yik Yik,” knowing they had no intentions for this [bullying to have happened]. We made some agreements that I would post a victory update to the petition and they would make the changes they talked about.”
A Safe Haven for Violent Threats
And Long is unfortunately one of many to have suffered the real world consequences of Yik Yak chatter. In November of 2014, Jordan Crockett, a SUNY Albany football player, was arrested after he threatened to blow up the school in a post on the university’s Yik Yak feed. A similar situation unfolded this November when Christian Malik Pryor, a football player at Fresno State, posted a picture of his campus with this threat, “the time is here. @3PM I will release my frustrations. Tired of dirty looks, get rejected, and being talked about bc how I dress. My choice of weapon M4 Carbine.”
Also in November of this year, two young men, Hunter M. Park and Connor Stottlemyre, were arrested in separate incidents, both for making threats on Yik Yak following protests regarding racial issues at the University of Missouri. One post read, “I’m going to shoot any black people tomorrow, so be ready.” Bomb, shooting and terrorist threats have also lead to arrests at Texas A&M, Emory University, the University of Central Oklahoma, among others. According to The Huffington Post, at least 11 college students were charged for posting threats of violence on Yik Yak in the fall 2014 semester.
In the most tragic case yet linked to the app, this May, Grace Rebecca Mann, a 20-year-old student at Mary Washington University in Virginia, was found strangled to death in her home. At the small school of only 4,000 students, Ms. Mann was known as one of the school’s leading voices for feminist and LGBT causes. She was a part of a campus group called Feminists United, which for months had been voicing their concern that women did not feel safe on campus. The group had recently penned an op-ed on the topic, which ran in the school’s newspaper and pointed to the Rugby team’s chant, which made headlines for promoting violence toward women. Leading up to Ms. Mann’s death, Feminists United was targeted with more than 700 violent threats and sexist comments on Yik Yak, according to Business Insider. Steven Vander Briel, Mann’s roommate and a member of the school’s Rugby team, was later charged with the crime.
A Safe Haven for Hate Speech
In addition to becoming a place where anonymous users threaten actual violence, YikYak’s role as a de facto platform for both general and targeted hate speech has also solidified in recent months.
In the fall of 2014, racism came into the spotlight at the University of Delaware, a predominately white school (minorities, including African-American, Hispanic and Asian students, made up less than ¼ of the student population in 2013) after a series of racist posts appeared on the Yik Yak. In response, then-junior and vice president of the Black Student Union, LaNisa Brooks, told the university’s newspaper, The Review, that “she came to the university looking for the ‘Blue Hen dream,’ but after seeing the posts on Yik Yak, she began to wonder if she truly belonged to the community, or if she was just a ‘partial Blue Hen.’” This past September, Tech Insider reported that a polarizing debate about nooses and the Black Lives Matter campaign at University of Delaware had moved from Twitter to Yik Yak in favor of anonymity.
Earlier this year at Princeton two videos of white, male members of the swim team performing at a campus event as a group called “Urban Congo” surfaced online. The men, clad in loincloths with tribal streaks painted on their faces and bodies, banged on objects while chanting. While many internet commenters came down on the group for mocking African culture, numerous Princeton students took to Yik Yak to defend the group and express their own racist opinions.
“It was an ugly depiction of what people say behind closed doors. This brought it out into the open,” a Princeton student told RoomZoom.
The Yik Yak feed at Middlebury College has also seen numerous posts that targeted specific groups and individuals. One read, “If I could bang a hippo for no finals, I would hunt down Jordan Seman,” prompting the target and then-junior to write an op-ed for the school’s newspaper, The Middlebury Campus. This sparked a school-wide debate about the app, and eventually, a lengthy editorial in the campus paper. Rutgers University, Harvard and the University of Southern California, among many others, have published editorials and articles criticizing Yik Yak and in some cases have called for it to be shut down.
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