Series of anonymous posts sparks cyberbullying discussion

Before spring break, a sequence of offensive comments about rape survivors surfaced on Yik Yak, a smartphone application that allows communities in the same geographical area to post comments anonymously. These comments became the impetus for the Student Wellness Program to organize a series of discussions entitled “Let’s Talk About It”. Its central themes are the effects of social media, anonymous cyber spaces, and technology on college communities.

“There were postings that made people very uncomfortable, very angry … that students wanted to discuss in some way and wanted a formal response to,”  said Noemí Fernández, the student wellness program manager. “This particular discussion group is not exclusive to Yik Yak. It is the beginning of an ongoing conversation around our living communities that are informed by those cyberspaces and digital spaces.”

When such postings first occurred, the Title IX Prevention and Education Team were notified. The team brought them up during a meeting with the Student Wellness Center staff the following week.

“Students on campus frequently reach out to the support staff in Worth, OSE, and Title IX for a variety of concerns relating to their interpersonal relationships and experiences on and off campus,” said Nina Harris, the college’s violence prevention educator and advocate.

Fernández hopes that “Let’s Talk About It” will kick off a long-term project. She aims to facilitate honest and open conversations about challenging topics that affect us individually and communally, in the hopes that such conversations will move towards greater well-being at Swarthmore. Additionally, Fernández believes that by engaging in introspection and reflection on the community at large, students can learn and then use the important skills of communication and critical thinking to empower them later in life.

Fernández also hopes that eventually, there will be a training program for peer educators who want to be facilitators of difficult conversations.

Cyberbullying cases such as this one, as well as other instances of abuse via social media, have occurred at Swarthmore many times before.

“Students do share concerns about harassment and stalking via technology and social media,” Harris said. “Many students have shared experiences with current or former intimate partners and friends who actively use these methods.”

“When I first started here in December 2014, one of the responses that I got from a lot of students and other people on campus was a desire for facilitated conversations in which the members of this community can have open honest dialogue about their living spaces.” Fernández said. “The students don’t necessarily have the expertise, or the backgrounds, or the time to be facilitators of very difficult conversation that requires a lot of introspection on the self and on the community.”

Harris notes that this is in line with the experience of many other college communities across the country. Research on college populations shows that it is a prominent issue that carries over from high school. Studies show that between 10 and 30 percent of college students have experienced some form of harassment via e-mail, chat rooms, and various other forms of social media.

Recently, students of Margaret Crouch, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, posted sexually explicit and degrading content about her on Yik Yak during class.

Crouch said that she had been “defamed, my reputation besmirched. I have been sexually harassed and verbally abused. I am about ready to hire a lawyer,” according to the New York Times.

Yet Crouch could hardly find consolation, as there was no way of tracking the writers of the anonymous attacks. The app’s privacy policy states that it could not disclose the identities of posters without a “subpoena, court order or search warrant, or an emergency request from a law-enforcement official with a compelling claim of imminent harm”. A few universities, such as John Brown University, have barred access to Yik Yak via its Wi-Fi network.

While the use of anonymous forums to attack others is not a recent phenomenon, Fernández points out that the platforms in which such acts are occurring on are indeed modern.

“It’s almost unquantifiable whether there’s an uptick or downtick in the amount that its happening, but what has changed in the past ten years are the forums,” she said. “The digital ones are the ones that have expanded exponentially in the past ten years, which is why it is so hard to track and makes any sort of official response to them incredibly challenging.”

Fernández advises that students become engaged actors in this issue. She believes that students should be open to having challenging conversations, and encourages students to not hesitate to be in touch with the wealth of resources around campus them.

  It remains to be seen if “Let’s Talk about It” and other initiatives will lead to a decrease in the number of attacks made on anonymous platforms.

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