Yak flak: How should schools respond to students' anonymous speech?

When student government representative Max Zoberman introduced a bill banning Yik Yak from Emory University’s wireless network in October, he hoped to stop students from using the anonymous message-board app to utter “racially charged grievances.”

Before the meeting adjourned, however, waves of hostile yaks popped up to attack Zoberman with angry barbs and personal jabs. His proposal didn’t stop students from doing anything; it provoked them.

The anonymous posting app had been prevalent on campus since spring 2014. But posts had “taken on a more hateful tone” since students returned for classes in the fall, Zoberman said.

Yik Yak is a smartphone app that allows users to post, comment and vote on anonymous 200-character “yaks” on localized bulletin boards. The app has become popular on college campuses and in high schools — creating legal and ethical debates as critics question limits of anonymous speech and free-speech advocates profess its merits.

Since its November 2013 launch, stories about Yik Yak misuse have created debates, as students across the country use its veil of anonymity to spout racist thoughts, prod peers and professors with personal attacks and alarm the community with talk of mass violence.

In response, the app’s developers have blocked access to Yik Yak at 85 percent of middle school and high school campuses, and some colleges have banned the app from their wifi networks.

But the news isn’t all bad, free speech advocates point out. Students have used the app to spread awareness about mental illness, suicide prevention and race relations.

Emory is among the colleges across the country questioning what — if anything — to do about Yik Yak’s presence on campus.

Same story, new technology

From Sharpie notes scrawled on public bathroom stalls to strings of comments from unidentified posters on online message boards like Reddit and 4Chan, anonymous speech has become ubiquitous in modern culture.

The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, and The East Carolinian, the student newspaper at East Carolina University, have published anonymous reader submissions in their opinion sections for years. Unlike Yik Yak posts, opinion staff reviews the blurbs before they’re published, weeding out the unsavory ones and editing others for profanity.

The East Carolinian’s Pirate Rants’ topics run the gamut from complaints about campus construction to acknowledgement of attractive classmates to praise for the cafeteria’s dinner menu, Editor-in-Chief Ryan Clancy said. The Rants is among the most popular sections of the paper, he said.

Clancy and The Daily Tar Heel Editor-in-Chief Sam Schaefer both said students submit thoughts to the papers’ anonymous forums they wouldn’t always express aloud.

Although readers are freer with their anonymous speech, Schaefer said he’s noticed submissions to The Daily Tar Heel’s Kvetching Board aren’t as vitriolic as the posts on Yik Yak, likely because they know they won’t be published.

“It changes the tone of what people will say,” Schaefer said. “Especially when they’re complaining about other people’s personal behavior, they’re not going to walk up to them at the library and say, ‘hey you’re sucking on your pen really loud.’”

Clancy and Schaefer also said they’ve noticed fewer submissions as Yik Yak becomes more popular, probably because the app allows instant posting and user feedback. In response, Schaefer said The Daily Tar Heel is looking for ways to make posts more interactive once they are on the paper’s website, possibly adding an upvote feature.

Although Yik Yak is new, it feeds a desire for anonymous expression that has existed for centuries, said David Ardia, faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law and co-director of University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill’s Center for Media Law and Policy.

“Yik Yak didn’t create anonymity,” he said. “But it taps into a deep societal need for discourse.”

In a democratic society, free speech is essential for the free flow of ideas, Ardia said. And in fact, the United States was founded on a tradition of free, anonymous speech. Some anonymous authors spread ideas leading to the American Revolution, and the Founding Fathers used pseudonyms when they published the Federalist Papers, an important step in drafting the Constitution.

“It was well accepted during that time period that in order for there to be robust, wide-open public discourse, there needed to be some ability for speakers to engage in speech anonymously,” he said.

This sentiment hasn’t changed, especially among young people, who are still honing their personal identities and often seek affirmation anonymously, Ardia said. Even if colleges choose to ban the app, the ideas expressed there won’t disappear, leading to greater discontent.

“One of the theories underlying the First Amendment protection for speech,” he said, “is that it leads to a healthier, more stable society that permits people to speak their minds.”

Negative speech

Since its debut, Yik Yak has spread to about 17,000 communities, and as a result, Yik Yak-related incidents have peppered the news. At Oklahoma State University, a student was arrested after using Yik Yak to warn the campus would be the site of a mass shooting later in the week. At Eastern Michigan University a group of female professors alleged that students were using the app to harass them, making them to feel unsafe in the classroom.

In response, some institutions, like Utica College in New York and Vermont’s Norwich University, have blocked the app on their wireless networks. And waves of racist yaks have other universities like Clemson and UNC-Chapel Hill wondering if they should do the same.

Users must be 17 or older to download the app onto their phones, and the company has geo-fenced 85 percent of high school campuses in the United States as a precautionary measure, said Cam Mullen, Yik Yak’s lead community developer. The geo-fencing makes the app inaccessible by wifi or through data plans.

At Emory, the student body’s vocal opposition to the campus-wide ban led to a “neutering of the legislation,” Zoberman said, and the student government eventually passed a nonbinding resolution condemning the use of Yik Yak for hate speech. The resolution didn’t change the way the university deals with anonymous speech it finds problematic, but requested the university and student government discuss ways to handle anonymous speech on campus.

Since then, Zoberman said he believes the resolution forced a tone change. He’s noticed the student body seems to be policing itself on the app, with fewer racist posts and less cyberbullying.

“The resolution scared people,” he said. “You abuse it, you lose it.”

Yik Yak’s terms of service forbid yakkers from using the app to “defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten, or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others,” and “use racially or ethnically offensive language.”

And although Yik Yak can’t prevent users from posting that kind of speech, the company has been trying to curb it and ensure it’s quickly removed once posted, Mullen said.

Ultimately, Yik Yak relies on users to “downvote” or report posts they think are inappropriate, Mullen said, and developers have created safeguards to help users self-police their communities.

Users can “downvote” unpopular yaks until – after five downvotes – they disappear from feeds completely, and a moderation team works to review reported yaks.

New filters prevent users from posting full names, and certain words like “bomb” trigger a warning:

“Pump the brakes, this yak may contain threatening language. Now it’s probably nothing and you’re probably an awesome person but just know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take threats seriously. So you tell us, is this yak cool to post?”

Developers are also experimenting with ways to implement “natural language processing,” which would allow the app to determine whether a post is appropriate, Mullen said.

“Our efforts to curb misuse have gotten a ton better since Yik Yak initially came out, and it continues to improve with the ways we alter our moderation,” Mullen said.

The company has also cooperated with authorities to track down the authors of yaks threatening mass violence, successfully identifying yakkers whose posts threatened bombings or shootings.

Is it a big deal?

Anonymous speech itself is subject to the same free-speech protections as any other form of speech — unless it’s libelous, slanderous, threatening or obscene, the First Amendment protects it.

The challenge for anonymous forums comes when users post false gossip or viable threats, Ardia said.

When this happens, anonymous posting services like Yik Yak are forced to strike a balance between unmasking malicious individuals and protecting users’ privacy, he said. Often, companies’ terms of service outline when they will divulge users’ identities, but some people argue that schools, outside moderators, or even the government, may need to step in.

“Yes, there is offensive and harmful speech out there,” Ardia said. “What are we going to do about it? Then the question is who gets to decide what to do about it?”

Anonymous speech allows free discussion of all ideas, even those that might be unpopular, he said. An “open, robust discourse about anything” is essential for a healthy society to function, and the push to eradicate anonymous speech on websites like Facebook, which increasingly requires users to register with their real names, makes platforms like Yik Yak especially important, he said.

Rey Junco, a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who has been studying Yik Yak since the beginning of the school year, said with the barrage of negative press, people overlook the value of anonymous speech.

“The moral panic narrative surrounding Yik Yak is so played out that it’s almost incredibly boring,” Junco said.

The perception of Yik Yak as a cesspool for bad behavior is an example of the availability heuristic, Junco said, where society overestimates the likelihood of an event based on overexposure in news media.

For example, plane crashes get far more news coverage than car accidents, even though an individual is far more likely to die in car accident, Junco said. The same is true of cyber bullying and racism on Yik Yak, which do happen, but not nearly as often as non-users think.

“In my research on Yik Yak, those events are so few and far between, that they’re almost non-events,” he said. “I’ve seen maybe three or four posts that were mean or racist.”

Yaks that matter

On the first day of finals in December 2014, professors at Colgate University, identifying themselves in their Yak handles, crowded the campus feed with messages for their stressed-out students. Some professors posted motivational quotes and others encouraged students to get enough sleep. Students responded with upvotes and positive comments, pushing the professors’ notes to Colgate’s top post feed.

At other institutions, students and faculty have used Yik Yak as a launchpad for discourse about tough topics, taking the conversation from the anonymous forum to the campus quad.

When a student at the University of Michigan yakked a short suicide note in April, the post spurred an outpouring of support and a campus-wide conversation about suicide and mental illness. The next day, students and faculty gathered on campus to show their support with handmade signs and songs.

Other colleges have used students’ offensive posts on the app as a teachable experience, encouraging conversation about issues like race.

In April, students at Maine’s Colby College organized a protest to address perceived police brutality against minorities. Instead of sticking to designated demonstration areas, Tionna Haynes, president of Colby’s Students Organized for Black and Hispanic Unity, said protesters walked through academic buildings and near campus libraries.

The strategic move was intended to create conversation, Haynes said, but not the racially charged posts that exploded onto the campus Yik Yak feed.

Yaks criticized the protesters and denounced their cause, and Haynes said the posts made her and her friends feel “upset, unsafe and scared.”

University administrators used the momentum the yaks created to encourage teachers to take class time to address the week’s events, Haynes said, but she said she wasn’t sure what the community would take away from it.

“That’s a great step because some people have to be forced into a conversation about racism, bigotry and discrimination,” Haynes said. “I hope the teach-ins open a few more eyes to the realities that marginalized people live out everyday, even in Maine.”

Ardia and Junco both agree the anonymous speech creates a vehicle for discussion of larger, societal issues.

The app also serves as a live feed of students praises and complaints, Junco said. It’s something administrators can actually harness to help identify how to make campus a better environment to live and learn.

Junco said his research has shown Yik Yak does something many administrators struggle with: it creates a forum for students to build and maintain a community.

“Young people open up, take more creative risks, and that allows them to test different facets of their identity,” Junco said.

Junco says universities should harness the app as a free campus climate assessment, providing honest insights into students’ views of campus services, culture and stereotypes.

Some schools colleges agree. Duke University announced in February it had no plans to ban the app, maintaining the responsibility to post respectfully fell on Yik Yak users.

Mullen and Yik Yak spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said they agree the intersection of user privacy, the ability for the community to give feedback and the app’s localized nature allow anonymity to create a sense of camaraderie within communities.

“Anonymity levels the playing field,” McQuaide said, “and puts content over persona.”