“Yik Yak” app facilitates cyber abuse

Parrish September 11, 2018 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca ’21)
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda ’17

“Stop. This is dangerous.”

This reply appeared on YikYak beneath a message criticizing the bodies of three members of the women’s basketball team, who were identified by name in the message. The comment had ten upvotes. The reply had four downvotes.

YikYak is an app that displays individual comments, rather like twitter does, but anonymously. These remarks are arranged in a feed according to geographic area and upvotes. The app only shows comments that are posted from within a 1.5-mile radius of the user’s position, creating a feed that is exclusive to a campus, and in our case, residents of the Ville.

According to their description on the App Store, the designers of the app intended for it to serve as “a local bulletin board for your area.” In practice, it features mostly harmless jokes and the usual complaints about homework, food and lack of sleep. The top-rated comments in our area generally receive 70 to 80 upvotes in their first day.

When Elle Larsen ’15 opened YikYak on Friday, October 10, she saw that one of the jokes was about her. The message read, “Elle is breeding on the basketball team. popping out more tall basic blondes.”

Larsen said that she wasn’t fazed by this initial comment. She disregarded it and headed to practice. But when she returned to her phone in the locker room, new comments had appeared. A reply to a comment referencing her and two of her teammates read, “everyone on the women’s team is fat.”

When Larsen and her teammates went to dinner in Tarble, a new Yak immediately popped up, saying that “the concentration of basicness” was at an all-time high. Whoever posted the comment must have been sitting at an adjacent table.

“This comment was more threatening in the sense that somebody is watching everything we do,” said Larsen. “There’s something voyeuristic about it. We felt very unsafe.”

After leaving Tarble, the team went to DK to watch a movie together. Another yak went up. It read, “How do the DU tables hold the weight of the basketball blondes?” In a period of about half an hour, a wave of 20 to 30 posts went up. Posts included explicit sexual invitations and detailed body hatred which referred to the women by name. The messages were no longer mild accusations of being “basic,” but direct commentary on the women’s bodies.

“We couldn’t refresh fast enough to catch them all,” said Larsen.

The language of body hatred was particularly difficult for Larsen and her teammate Erin Jenson ’17. “If this is what people think of me,” Jenson wondered, “why should I even be here?”

Larsen and Jenson have both struggled with body image issues in the past, making them especially vulnerable to the content that appeared in the messages.  “It was especially hurtful to be personally attacked over something I struggled with for so long,” said Jenson. “I used to feel [Swarthmore] was a safe place.”

“It’s taken me a lot of work to get to a point of acceptance [of my body] — I’ve spent so much time fighting that fight. To have strangers come along and comment on it weighs more heavily on me than I would care to admit,” said Larsen. “I don’t know why my body is anybody else’s problem.”

Notably present on YikYak have been references to specific fraternity brothers’ nicknames in some of the comments. Larsen immediately contacted the presidents of the college’s two fraternities, as well as captains of other varsity sports teams. The fraternity presidents sent out emails to their houses expressing disapproval of any YikYak harassment.

When Delta Upsilon President Trevor Shepherd ’15 heard about what happened, he took action in the fraternity. “We encouraged our members and pledges to get rid of the app altogether, seeing what was coming of it,” he said.

The women also reported getting support from leadership on the lacrosse and baseball teams, as well as men’s soccer, men’s basketball, and women’s field hockey.  “I was really impressed with how supportive the majority of people were when we were reaching out to captains and leadership,” said the third teammate who was targeted, who wished to remain anonymous.

Larsen also reached out to Swarthmore’s athletic directors. “Those who are contributing to this type of nonsense are not living up to the expectations that we, as a department…expect,” said Athletic Director Adam Hertz. “If we know definitively that student-athletes are participants in this sort of activity, there will be repercussions.”

But the YikYak problem is not unique to the athletic department. A series of homophobic messages appeared last week regarding the recent chalking and counter-chalking that took place on campus. Criticisms of the methods used in the chalking action were quickly overwhelmed by queer-bashing commentary. While this incident did not include messages that used people’s names, commentary centered around how the representations of queer sexuality in the chalkings were “disgusting.”

During the debate on the chalkings, one commenter wrote, “How do you spot an LBGTQ person at a party? They’ll tell you, don’t worry.” The comment received 32 upvotes. Responses argued that queer women often have to actively avoid the aggressive pursuit of men in party spaces by announcing their sexual preference immediately.

Amit Schwalb ’17, who endured significant cyber-bullying in high-school, was disturbed, but not surprised by the commentary.

“I see these attitudes present in the way people talk on campus and in the social environments of party spaces, and how people talk about hookups,” said Schwalb, “so it doesn’t surprise me.”

In response to a statement defending the so-called “Basketball Blondes,” one yakker wrote, “if you can’t stand the heat, get off the app.” But turning off the app has not shielded victims of YikYak bullying from the comments directed at them.

“You can’t get away from it,” said Larsen.

Another target, who was explicitly attacked by name in a series of comments last week, heard about commentary regarding her behaviour in one of the fraternities. The comments used brutal misogynistic terms. She actively avoided seeing the content out of sense of self-protection. But several times, she was approached by concerned people in Sharples. Despite good intentions, the reminder was destructive.

The three women on the basketball team were also not able to avoid the messages directed at them. They received facebook messages with screenshots of the comments on YikYak and were approached in person by well-meaning friends constantly over the lifespan of the incident.

The anonymity of the platform has had a distinct effect for the targets, creating a sense of deep isolation in the Swarthmore community. The fourth target said, “Walking through the dining hall and looking around at everyone’s faces, I feel suspicion towards everyone because I don’t know who wrote those comments.”

“When there’s anonymity, it could be anybody,” agreed Schwalb. “The whole world becomes a hostile environment.” Jenson, too, said “I feel paranoid when I go out.”

Incidents like these are by no means rare. In a 2011 study conducted at Indiana State University by Bridget Roberts-Pittman and Christine MacDonald, findings showed that 22 percent of students had been cyberbullied during their time in the undergraduate program. 42% of students reported having witnessed cyberbullying among college students.

There is an established pattern of students at elite colleges using anonymous platforms for bullying. At Dartmouth last fall, a student who had been sexually assaulted was referred to as the “Choates Whore” on the anonymous site Bored at Baker (the name referred to her residence hall). In January, a post appeared with instructions on how to rape her. She was subsequently assaulted at the next party she attended.

At Kenyon College, explicit threats of rape against residents at the Crozier Center for Women appeared on YikYak. Following a suggestion on the app, supplies for a Take Back the Night protest disappeared. The phrase ‘rape back the night’ began to appear on the app.

In order to mitigate cyberbullying on campus, Norwich University blocked the app on the school’s computer system. However, it can still be accessed via cell phones, which is how it is generally used.

The app is age-rated at 17+ to prevent use at high schools and middle schools, where bullying complaints appeared almost immediately after its release last year. After incidents of cyberbullying in Chicago high schools made the news, the founders began putting up “geofences” around middle schools and high schools. They have already blocked 130,000 schools, representing 85 percent of the schools nationwide.

“We designed the app primarily for college students,” creator Brooks Buffington told the Huffington Post. “Using the app the way we intended it to be used requires a certain amount of maturity and responsibility, we were idealistic about who possessed that.”

Some students have encouraged mass deletion of the app as an act of solidarity with people and communities targeted by the messages that have appeared over the last weeks.

“I would love to see the app go,” said Larsen. “Nobody should have to deal with that.”

Advocates for victims of cyberbullying have urged that while blocking the app may be necessary to protect targets, it is also only the beginning of an urgent shift. “The solution to stopping hate speech isn’t just about making it impossible for people to use it,” said Schwalb. “It’s about creating a culture where it’s unacceptable.”

1 Comment

  1. Can something be done about this app??? I’m a school counselor and I’ve been dealing with cyber bullying because of this app. Someone is going to get pushed enough that they’re going to hurt themselves. Is that what it’s going to take to get rid of this app? If your organization can somehow get to the creators of this app and let them know it’s causing more harm than good, that would be great!

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