BY JENNI SIGL
While hate speech on college campuses shared through Yik Yak is detrimental to the students it affects, it also sheds light on clear, though often not discussed racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia and bias towards various individuals and student groups.
This was apparent in a May 5 incident on the popular, anonymous social sharing app at Santa Clara University (SCU) in Santa Clara, Calif.
On the night of the post, members of SCU Igwebuike, the on-campus black student union, were gathered outside Swig Hall and speaking a bit loudly, according to Alana Hinkston a Santa Clara junior and member of the group who was present when the yak containing the hate speech was posted.
Another student in the group present at the time pulled up Yik Yak on their phone when they saw the post and showed the others.
The following week on Wed. May 13, the Office of the President at Santa Clara U. sent an official message to students. While the e-mail seemingly referred to the Yik Yak post from week prior, it did not disclose a specific incident.
The Office of the President did not respond to a request for confirmation that the e-mail was, in fact, referring to the Swig Hall incident. Students again took to Yik Yak to discuss the cause of the email.
Hate speech on Yik Yak is becoming more and more prevalent on college campuses across the country, with incidents occurring at University of Southern California, Syracuse University, Miami University, Santa Clara University and many others. The veil of anonymity has led to a proliferation of students sharing opinions usually considered unfavorable to speak about in person or in a public setting.
“It’s been rare for me in my significant usage of Yik Yak to see abusive and trolling behavior,” says Jonathan Patten, a recent La Salle University graduate. “I know for a fact that Yik Yak has bots that automatically down vote any mention of a potential name of an individual. Any abusive things disappear quickly as a result of this.”
This claim appears to have some basis, as co-founder Tyler Droll confirmed in an interview with PC World. In the interview, he said users have the ability to downvote yaks and report them and, “on our end, we have a team of moderators working and we have filters running in the background. They’re checking for names, comments, cyberbullying, racist and homophobic slurs, and general inappropriate content.”
While describing the self-policing nature of Yik Yak to the New York Times, Droll said, “Really, what it comes down to is that we try to empower the communities as much as we can.”
At Santa Clara, the yak in question was posted for two minutes and received two upvotes at the time the screenshot was taken, even though it was in clear violation of the Yik Yak terms. The exact amount of time the yak was up before receiving the number of downvotes needed to warrant its removal is unclear. But for many students, that was plenty of time to see the post.
These issues point to the Catch-22 nature of hate speech Yik Yak has created on college campuses. While hate speech on the app has been abusive to those affected, the fact that students have an anonymous platform to voice unfavorable opinions sheds light on problematic and often suppressed issues occurring at college campuses nationwide.
Through its anonymity and resulting lack of accountability, Yik Yak is giving a voice — even if just a temporary one — to hateful comments. It brings private opinions and sentiments into a public space, many of which have been previously hidden.
While students, staff and faculty have mixed feelings about Yik Yak, it appears — at least for the time being — that the app is not going away.
That said, universities should take these opportunities to address the hate speech that is occurring and potential campus-wide instances of racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia or bias. In a difficult and sometimes troubling way, Yik Yak has created concrete points of reference for universities to address relevant issues on their campuses.
In March a group of students at Saint John’s University in New York started an #OccupyYikYak movement to shed light on anonymous hate speech and shift the conversation.
In a similar fashion, the Associated Student Government (ASG) at SCU held a town hall-style meeting May 13, the week after the Yik Yak hate speech incident, where students were encouraged to come and voice their opinions and emotions surrounding the recent incidents.
Titled, “When It’s Not a Great Day to Be a Bronco,” the event created a space for discussion about the hurtful yaks posted. Leaders and participants worked to channel that discussion into a constructive discourse on how to address issues and create solutions.
By acknowledging, addressing and discussing hate speech occurring on Yik Yak, students and administrators engage in much-needed conversation and create more tolerant and inclusive campus communities.