Technology

Women’s Groups Urge Colleges and Government to Rein In Yik Yak

October 21, 2015

Seventy-two women’s and civil-rights groups on Wednesday announced a campaign to enlist the federal government in pressuring colleges to protect students from harassment via anonymous social-media applications like Yik Yak.

The groups have sent the U.S. Education Department a letter calling for it to treat colleges’ failure to monitor anonymous social media and to pursue online harassers as a violation of federal civil-rights laws guaranteeing equal educational access.

The letter says many colleges have cited "vague First Amendment concerns" to shirk their obligation to respond to harassment, intimidation, and threatening behavior via such applications. It calls on the department’s Office for Civil Rights to require colleges to fight such online abuse by taking steps like identifying and disciplining perpetrators and creating technological barriers to the use of social-media applications that harassers favor.

Screen shots of Yik Yak posts critical of a Feminists United club at the U. of Mary Washington, in Virginia. The shots were included in exhibits with a complaint filed against the university in May.
Debra S. Katz, a lawyer involved in the advocacy groups’ effort, announced that she had persuaded the Office for Civil Rights to investigate the University of Mary Washington, a public institution in Virginia, based on accusations that the university had subjected students to a sexually hostile environment by failing to confront online harassment and had illegally retaliated against students for complaining. She said she also had sent a letter requesting a meeting with Yik Yak’s founders, Tyler Droll and Stephen Brooks Buffington, to discuss steps their company can take to end harassment. And she said she planned to push lawmakers to regulate Yik Yak if the company fails to tackle the issue on its own.

"Until there is a cost for online harassment, nothing will change," Shauna Thomas, a co-founder of UltraViolet, a feminist advocacy group, said on Wednesday as her organization joined others at a news conference here announcing the anti-harassment campaign.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said she had been shocked to hear people argue that the First Amendment covers the type of speech the groups’ campaign seeks to curb. "Social media should not have this kind of protection," she said.

Fight Over Fixes

Yik Yak, released in November 2013, is hardly the first social-media application to cause havoc on campuses by offering students a means to anonymously post slanderous gossip, racial slurs, and threats of harm. Years before it came along, for example, the short-lived gossip website JuicyCampus earned notoriety as a forum for the posting of offensive material.

The letter that the 72 advocacy groups sent the Education Department on Tuesday mentions several other social-media applications, such as 4chan, an online bulletin board, and BurnBook, a forum for school-based commentary, as vehicles for anonymous harassment.

Yik Yak, however, appears to be more popular and profitable than many of the other social-media applications designed to facilitate anonymous commentary. While JuicyCampus was forced to shut down in 2009 due to a lack of financial support and revenue, Yik Yak has managed to raise more than $60 million in investments.

Hilary McQuaide, a spokeswoman for Yik Yak, said in an email on Wednesday that the company had not yet received the letter from Ms. Katz requesting a meeting.

"Guarding against misuse is something we take incredibly seriously, and we’re constantly working to enhance our protective measures," the company said in a statement provided by Ms. McQuaide. "Encouraging a positive, constructive, and supportive community environment on Yik Yak is a top area of focus for us."

Among the company’s safeguards, according to the statement, are filters, pop-up warnings, in-app reporting, moderation, and suspensions, as well as software that can automatically scan for certain words to detect trouble.

But those safeguards were dismissed as superficial and ineffective in the letter that Ms. Katz sent to Yik Yak’s founders on Tuesday on behalf of the Feminist Majority and Feminists United, a student group at the University of Mary Washington. The letter notes, for example, that abusive users can bypass the application’s system for filtering threatening speech by slightly altering words, changing "rape" to "grape," for example. She argued that Yik Yak’s use of community monitoring, which theoretically lets students down-vote harassing comments out of existence, does not prevent the posting of comments that offend, bully, or threaten, and offers little protection to students from minority groups who are unlikely to see others come to their defense.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Ms. Katz said she hoped to persuade Yik Yak to be more forthcoming in revealing the identities of users who harass online, and to stop refusing to hand over users’ names to people outside law enforcement unless ordered to do so by a court. Observing that the company has been quick to provide information identifying people who have threatened criminal acts such as shootings, she said it should also feel obliged to identify the violators of federal laws barring educational institutions from discriminating based on sex or race.

Firsthand Accounts

Colleges, for their part, have been too quick to disclaim responsibility for dealing with harassment and threats on Yik Yak, partly because students can use the application without access to university servers, argued the letter sent to the Education Department by the 72 advocacy groups. (Its signatories included the American Association of University Women, the National LGBTQ Taskforce, the National Organization for Women, and several local organizations, such as the DC Rape Crisis Center.)

A statement that the groups issued to the news media offered a litany of incidents in which women had felt bullied or threatened via Yik Yak, including a controversy last fall at Eastern Michigan University stemming from students’ use of Yik Yak to hurl insults and sexual remarks at instructors in an honors class. Much of Wednesday’s event was devoted to firsthand accounts of how anonymous Yik Yak posts had left women feeling harassed or threatened.

"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, said in recalling how Yik Yak users harassed women at the University of Mary Washington.

Ms. Thomas, of UltraViolet, said that social-networking platforms are "a major reason why rape culture persists."

The civil-rights complaint filed against the University of Mary Washington initially argued that the university had violated Title IX, which bars sex-based discrimination by education institutions, by deeming the harassment of students on Yik Yak as protected by the First Amendment. The complaint was subsequently amended to accuse the university’s president, Richard V. Hurley, of illegal retaliation for issuing a letter criticizing the initial complaint and denying many of its claims.

The Office for Civil Rights announced its intent to investigate the university this month. Marty Morrison, a university spokeswoman, on Wednesday issued a statement in which its administration said that "the prevention of sexual misconduct is an institutional priority" and that the university welcomes the Education Department’s guidance.

Ms. Katz said she hoped the Office for Civil Rights would issue strong new guidance requiring colleges to stem online harassment "because schools, quite frankly, are very scared of lawsuits."

Reynol Junco, who has studied Yik Yak extensively as an associate professor of education and human-computer interaction at Iowa State University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, on Wednesday said he would hate to see colleges prevent students’ use of the application, because many of the statements made on it, including those directed toward marginalized populations, are positive or affirming. "If you get rid of Yik Yak," he said, "you will never get a really true sense of the campus culture."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.