Safety Sync: Yik Yak YIKES
Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education)
You may have seen recent news coverage about college professors and students being harassed via Yik Yak, or heard your children, colleagues, and neighbors talking about the app. But what exactly is Yik Yak, and why does it pose a challenge to advocates and providers who seek to serve survivors of sexual violence?
Yik Yak is an app that allows users to anonymously post comments, without being attached to any kind of user identifier. Unlike Twitter, where users’ tweets are connected to their unique individual username, “Yaks” (as Yik Yak posts are called) are instead clustered by location. The app uses the GPS location settings on a user’s smartphone in order to display Yaks posted within a 1.5-mile radius. The app is ideally suited to college campuses, where high densities of student users have shared experiences (residence halls, cafeteria food, and final exam stress, to name a few) that others can identify with.
College students may also be particularly receptive to the app because of its anonymity. Since so many college students have been cautioned about the risks associated with posting on social media under their real names, they seem to be choosing Yik Yak more and more for posting off-the-cuff and humorous remarks that they might not want future employers to see connected to their names during future job searches.
While the anonymous nature of the app can provide shy students with a platform for voicing opinions they might otherwise feel threatened sharing, it is increasingly being used to shame, intimidate, and harass professors and students—mostly women—on campuses throughout the U.S. In one jarring example, students at Eastern Michigan University made demeaning and sexual comments about their 3 female professors—while those professors were delivering their lecture. In another case, Yik Yak cooperated with law enforcement and turned over the details for one of its Michigan State University users after he posted “I’m gonna [gun emoji] the school at 12:15 p.m. today”. But in cases involving anything other than immediate threats of mass violence, the app’s makers have reportedly been unwilling to cooperate with requests for information.
The threats can be severe. One anonymous survivor interviewed for this article, who was bullied by name on Yik Yak, said, “Someone wrote that I made up my rape. Someone wrote that I was molested by my uncle. Another person asked why nobody has punched me in the face. I was told to expect carnage.” The student said that even after receiving multiple reports of the harassment, the college responded with indifference, even as the threats continued escalating. “When I reported it to the school they kept assuring me there was nothing they could do about it…I received a threatening anonymous letter in the mail and had my apartment broken into.” At the University of Mary Washington, such escalating harassment proved deadly, when Feminists United leader Grace Rebecca Mann was murdered after months of harassment via the app. Feminists United has stated that despite reporting explicit and violent threats, including Yaks detailing Mann’s movements on campus, the school failed to act adequately in protecting students from harm. The group has filed a complaint with the Department of Education in response to the harassment and Mann’s murder.
Because Yaks are by definition posted by individuals who are physically close by, threats via the app should be construed as imminent—and this case tragically shows that the consequences of failing to do so are grave.
Yik Yak is evidently worth paying serious attention to, particularly in the college setting. As advocates, providers, and educators, we can help our clients by both helping to reduce risk related to the app and by serving as effective advocates as clients seek appropriate accommodations and responses if harassment occurs. How can we do this?
1. Seek to understand why your clients are using the app in the first place. (After all, if the app existed only to post hateful things, it likely would have a smaller user base.) If a client mentions that they use the app, ask what they like about it or get out of using it, and see if there might be another platform that might meet those needs. The answer might be surprising.
As I was researching this article, I downloaded the app to see what was being posted in my area. The first time I logged into the app, I found the following yak:
(The conversation continued, and the original poster, or OP, also disclosed that they had been intimidated and feared for their physical safety.) Unfortunately, a number of replies to this person blamed them for their experience, told them that their experience “wasn’t rape,” or said that there was nothing that they could do about it. Yik Yak doesn’t allow users to post phone numbers, but I did my best to direct the user to local resources (in this case, I accessed the app in Montgomery County, so I suggested Googling the Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program). I have seen other posts since then seeking support, for everything from divorcing parents to suicidality. Before assuming that someone’s connection to Yik Yak is trivial, ask them why they use the app. For some people who prefer to engage via a text message-like medium, it can feel like a lifeline, albeit an unreliable one.
2. Discuss strategies that can minimize disruption and help survivors feel safer. If someone is being stalked or harassed, they may feel that they need to keep an eye on Yik Yak for their own safety; however, the process of checking might in itself become an additional stress and induce further anxiety. In these situations, you can suggest that a friend check Yik Yak for them and report back to them daily about whether there were any Yaks that mentioned them. If a survivor wants to read posts personally, ask about whether there’s a possibility that they do that during a counseling session or with someone who they trust in the room with them to support them.
3. Integrate an understanding of Yik Yak into your safety planning discussions. Because Yaks are organized geographically, any threats posted via the app that are visible to a survivor are coming from someone nearby and should therefore be treated seriously. If a client is targeted via the app, whether by name or by allusions to personally identifying information, encourage them to take the information to the police. If there is a pattern of harassment over time, encourage the survivor to document the postings by taking screen shots on their device and recording the date, time, and location where the information was gathered.
Additionally, survivors of stalking may feel that Yik Yak is safer than traditional platforms like Facebook or Twitter, due to its anonymous nature. Unfortunately, few among us realize how distinctive our “voice” online can be—and since Yik Yak is organized by location, even an anonymous Yak might give a stalker information about a survivor’s whereabouts. Encourage survivors of stalking either to avoid Yik Yak entirely or to be judicious about their use of the app, and to avoid posting location names within their Yaks.
4. Use an understanding of Maryland state laws to advocate for your clients’ interests. All public and private schools in Maryland are required to have anti-cyber-bullying policies in effect and to issue annual reports that include all incidents of cyber-bullying. Under Title IX, schools are required to both prevent and affirmatively respond to any incidents of sexual harassment on or off campus by making accommodations for the affected student(s). Encourage survivors to contact SALI, the Sexual Assault Legal Institute, 301-565-2277, for legal help.
5. Understand the broad impact of being harassed via the app. The nature of the app means that any threatening or harassing comments were made by someone close by—and not knowing by whom can make it challenging for survivors to manage their anxiety around interacting and moving on campus. The survivor interviewed for this article commented, “It’s really, really scary to be harassed and stalked anonymously because everywhere on campus becomes unsafe. It could be anyone doing these things to you. It’s scary to just exist.”
Jonathan Mahler, "Who Spewed That Abuse? Anonymous Yik Yak App Isn't Telling," New York Times,
March 8, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/technology/popular-yik-yak-app-confers-anonymity-and-delivers-abuse.html?_r=0
Justin Jouvenal and T. Rees Shapiro, "Feminists at Mary Washington Say They Were Threatened on Yik Yak," Washington Post,
May 6, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/feminists-at-mary-washington-say-they-were-threatened-on-yik-yak/2015/05/06/3d8d287a-f34a-11e4-b2f3-af5479e6bbdd_story.html
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Frontline.