• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


A Challenge to Yik Yak

Learning from past sites for anonymous insults.


December 13, 2015

I have three challenges for the social networking company that runs the Yik Yak site/app. First, attest that never in the history of your app have its founders or employees ever posted racist material, and likewise, never asked or encouraged anyone they knew to do it. Second, establish a policy for your company that its founders and employees will not be allowed to post material, and are also prohibited from asking anyone else to post on their behalf, or even encouraging any form of content to be posted on the site. Third, use some of your well-funded monies to do something positive in higher education, for example to establish a chair in law, history or public policy for the study of racism in the United States; or a scholarship to students of color; or to fund speakers to address issues of racism on our college and university campuses.

The thinking behind these challenges begins with my experience of juicycampus.com. The Judicial Administrator referred to me some students – mostly white women – maligned by anonymous persons using the most hurtful and crude language. I counseled one student for over a week. To suit her schedule, we would talk nightly around 9 or 10, about what was being posted, speculation as to who or why.  When I felt we had exhausted all avenues of understanding about how the site operated and what she could (and could not) do about it, I gingerly suggested to her that she stop going onto the site and get on with her life.  I never heard from her again.  I don’t know whether that was the antidote or whether she avoided me because it was the one thing that she could not do in all that otherwise paralyzed her about it.

A couple of years later I was in a different office over by IT Help Desk.  A student worker came in and said that a couple of students were on the phone, very upset, and wanted Cornell to block a site upon which there were anti-Semitic comments.  Further investigation turned up another social gossip site, this one called CollegeACB.com.  I spoke at some length with them discussing the issue of blocking (Who decides?  Slippery slope?  Floodgate argument … What good would it do in a multi-networked world and data networking on smart phones?). Whatever else they did about the issue with Student Affairs or Hillel, I don’t know.  They seemed satisfied by the end of the conversation that the solution was not to be found in technology.

Two days later my office phone was ringing off the hook.  The parents of a couple of girls that were in the thick of nasty posts were desperate.  Longer detective story short of meetings with the girls and trying to sleuth the matter out, I had a hunch.  Maybe someone on the inside of the company, or fellow travelers, were seeding content?  Both girls denied that they had made the initial comment that started the conflagration between them.  They had gone to a fraternity party together, posted information about it ahead of time on each of their publicly accessible pages on Facebook.  Early the next morning, an anonymous post appeared.  One of the girls claimed that the other had gone off with some of the fraternity guys alone, coupled with the same stock in trade crude and hurtful language. 

I began to put two and two together: anyone could have done a web or Facebook search to find freshman (always the most vulnerable students were targeted) women at Cornell, their friendships, and depending on what they posted, their activities and whereabouts.  Anyone could also access the gossip site and post an anonymous comment.  If both girls were swearing that neither of them did it and could not imagine anyone else they knew who would do it, it was at least possible that someone not at Cornell but motivated by attracting hits to the site could have done it.  Once the named girl was targeted, the site encouraged her to respond in kind.  Everyone was off and running with a stream of damaging comments. 

That was a fall semester.  I became more persuaded by the thought of seeded content when after a period quiet over winter break, CollegeACB’s Cornell section lit up with racist suggestion, using harsh, racist language, that popped up the Sunday before spring semester.  Out of blue … really?  I just could not imagine that a Cornell student woke up a day before classes began and was motivated to post a single inflammatory sentence.  It was as if someone just wanted to incite a riot.

In this case, I took a two-pronged approach.  First, I had the two students with whom I spoke promise each other not to access the site. Second, I encouraged the parents, one of whom remained in contact with me, to form a group. Together they informed CollegeACB’s advertisers. These advertisers included the American Heart Association and the Library of Congress, who had no idea that the public relations clearing had made this placement.  More than anything else, that tack got action. Suddenly, as the money dried up, CollegeACB scrambled to rebrand their site as the one upon which people were encouraged to say nice things to each other.  It was too late.  The damage could not be undone.  CollegeACB went out of business. 

Yik Yak compares with this line of gossip sites insofar as it, too, has been the site of hateful, hurtful attacks, especially on racial, sexual and ethnic groups of people. It has distinguished itself by using domain name addressing to be location specific.  Not branding itself a gossip site, it has generated traffic that in addition to the hateful stuff is also sometimes useful in terms of information sharing (“the food truck is here and has good stuff!”) but also, and mostly, pedestrian comments about a course, class, conference or social life about campus. Notably, it has attracted quite a lot of angel investor money and now its headquartered is in Silicon Valley. It denies association with the hurtful, hateful content, and of course it pounds on the First Amendment, although, as a private company and not a government entity, it cannot affirmatively use the First Amendment as a legal matter; rather, it is appeals to the culture that the First Amendment bequeaths to American society. 

Nonetheless, I remain interested in how this social networking site intersects with the social issues fomenting on our campuses. Hence, the challenge. Will its founders swear that they have never trucked in racist, ethnic or sexual slurs?  Never had anyone they know post such content, even, in the formative days, “for the fun of it,” or “just to see what would come of it?” Will they create a policy forbidding any form of seeded comment among its employees and to third parties?  And how about giving back to the community upon which it now enjoys so much material success? And a final challenge to its users: think hard about whether by using the site you want to continue to support it. 


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