UR students rank among the most active users of Yik Yak, but in recent weeks the app’s reputation as a place for harmless puns and jokes was tarnished by posts containing derogatory slurs, personal threats and racist epitaphs. Sparked by ResLife’s assignments of Academic Living Centers to Drama House, Douglass Leadership House (DLH) and Sigma Phi Epsilon (Sig Ep), more racist and derogatory language began appearing on the app.
Due to Yik Yak’s anonymous platform and geographic limitations, the posts and their readers are largely confined to the River Campus.
“The big value of anonymity is that it levels the playing field so the content is the most important thing—not social status, number of friends, public persona, etc,” Yik Yak Director of Communications Hilary McQuaide said in an email.
However, anonymity can provide a platform for posts that might otherwise have been self-censored.
“Whether it’s bullying, racism [or] sexism, we do not tolerate [it],” Yik Yak co-founder and CEO Tyler Droll said at the College Media Association conference in New York City in early March. “That’s nowhere close to the intention we had when creating [the app].”
As a result, the University has had a challenging time responding to posts that may have violated the student code of conduct.
“Maybe they wouldn’t constitute violations of the Code of Conduct and warrant discipline, but they’re the kind of things that don’t constitute principles of fairness, inclusion, and respect,” Dean of the College Richard Feldman said.
The University has decided to pursue investigation into the offending posts, and has contacted the District Attorney (DA)’s office. According to Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Mark Fischer, DPS is “working with the DA’s office on the determination of whether a crime has been committed.” On March 9, the University asked the DA’s office for a subpoena.
While McQuaide said that “Yik Yak is about location first, anonymity second,” the company uses a host of provisions to protect the anonymity of its users. Yik Yak releases non-public user information only to law enforcement officials who have a subpoena, court order or search warrant. If officials have a court order, Yik Yak states that “certain non-content records associated with a user’s account…includ[ing] the time and date when a message was posted and the IP address associated with the message” will be released to them. If they produce a search warrant, Yik Yak is compelled “…to disclose the contents of any messages associated with a user’s account.” Yik Yak also requires a search warrant for the release of GPS records.
However, because of Yik Yak’s anonymous nature, it is unclear what records Yik Yak could release.According to Yik Yak’s legal policy, “Yik Yak’s records of ‘basic subscriber information,’ if any, are likely to be very limited.”
“DPS has done some investigation, but now needs the identity of the offending users in order to complete the process,” Senior Counsel for River Campus Legal Issues Richard Crummins said.
The University informed the student body, in an email sent March 8, that they had contacted Yik Yak regarding the posts. The email said that that the University had “demand[ed] that the posts be removed and that Yik Yak provide information to the University about the posters.” Feldman left a description of the posts intentionally vague.
“I didn’t want to repeat them,” Feldman said. “It seemed hurtful to spread them even more widely.” However, Feldman acknowledged the tradeoff that the lack of specificity causes.
“One of the things I’ve learned in talking to a few students about it is that they didn’t realize the kinds of things that were said and just how awful they were,” he said. “[Students] might have seen comments from me or others in the administration as unduly criticizing and thinking you can’t say things that are not so nice. And then they find out what it really was and they say ‘Oh God, that’s over the line.’ It’s a hard call because [without quoting them,] some people might not have understood how bad they were.”
Not all of UR’s demands to Yik Yak have been met, but on March 13, in an email updating parents on the situation, Feldman informed them that “Yik Yak had banned one user (for threatening to burn a structure in front of DLH), and […] that Yik Yak is actively looking for ways to encourage more responsible use of the app.”
“It’s disappointing to me that that’s part of the community,” Dean of the College Richard Feldman said in reference to the racially charged posts.
As the comments grew increasingly offensive and specific student names were called out, DLH members shared the posts with their advisors, who involved DPS, Feldman and Dean of Students Matthew Burns. In a sign of solidarity with DLH, both Burns and Feldman visited the house on March 6, and DPS has been providing a steady presence around the house to alleviate student concerns for their safety.
In addition to threats to physical safety, however, DLH members were disheartened by the Yik Yak comments because of the way they discredited the whole process of selecting ALCs. In addition to the comments regarding race, other comments were expressly directed at DLH’s ALC application. In an attempt to alleviate some of the commentary regarding the housing selection, ResLife asked DLH and the other ALCs to release their proposals. DLH declined to do so.
“Some people had the feeling that [the request] undermined the whole process of picking the house,” DLH member Christopher Marsh said, adding, “It seemed like you have to appease the attackers.”.
However, the posts went beyond the issues of housing and the ALC selection process.
“The issue wasn’t about getting the house back,” DLH President Sade Richardson said. “This year is the year of inclusion, and I felt like this was pretty much not inclusive.”
Meanwhile the University seeks the identities of the offending users, and students are trying to regain the forum that Yik Yak has the potential to be. SA Senator and freshman Delvin Moody’s “Take Back Yik Yak” initiative was presented at this week’s Senate meeting, and will hopefully be one step towards reestablishing a positive environment on Yik Yak.
According to Fischer, the investigation “will not end until we exhaust every lead.”
Remus is a member of
the class of 2016.
Schaffer is a member of
the class of 2016.