Several women’s and civil-rights groups announced a campaign last week to pressure colleges to protect students from sexual harassment via anonymous social-media sites like Yik Yak by filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
- Letter of October 20 sent to the US Department of Education
- Response from US Department of Education
Most of the groups’ presentation provides firsthand accounts of how anonymous Yik Yak posts had left women feeling harassed or threatened. If that is found to be true, it would be a direct violation of federal law under Title IX, but many colleges and universities have been quick to distance themselves from the threatening posts, saying they were made from smartphones, which do not route network traffic through any college-owned or college-operated server.
“We were sexually harassed, called vulgar and offensive names. The most vitriolic of the posts threatened us with rape and murder,” Julia Michels, president of Feminists United, was quoted as saying, adding Yik Yak was used to harass women at the University of Mary Washington.
Yik Yak was released in November 2013, having been developed by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, both graduates of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. In response to pressure from anti-bullying groups, they installed filters to disallow the use of names and to question users whose posts include certain words, such as ‘bomb’ or ‘Jew,’ which might be actionable threats. But the decision to post still belongs to the users themselves, provided they respond to the warning message.
“Pump the brakes,” the app warns if a potential post might be harassing. “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?”
But users have found ways around the filters. For example, some use the word ‘grape’ when they mean ‘rape.’ The warning is superficial at best and won’t stop true harassment, as any seasoned Facebook user knows.
In March 2014, Voxitatis noted that the app was even being used to bully high school students. According to Paul Waechtler, principal of the Northfield campus of New Trier Township High School, some anonymous posts have included the names of students.
“The problem, as you might imagine, is that the anonymity is empowering certain individuals to post comments about others that are hurtful, harassing, and sometimes quite disturbing,” the Tribune quoted Joe Ruggiero, head of the Upper School at Francis W Parker School in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, as writing in an email to parents.
And in March of this year, we reported that venture capitalists had given more than $60 million to the makers of Yik Yak.
Other social-media applications mentioned in the groups’ letter include 4chan and BurnBook. The former is an online bulletin board, and the latter is a forum for school-based commentary. But each has been cited for several firsthand examples of harassing comments directed toward women on college campuses.
Yik Yak is the most popular one, though, and as we reported, it has found strong financial backing, a quality JuicyCampus, a gossip app that had to shut down in 2009, simply didn’t have.