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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Yik Yak’s potential for cyberbullying problematic

Published: November 7, 2014
Section: Opinions

One of the single best ways to destroy campus unity is to incite mistrust among peers. And Yik Yak, the anonymous social media app that operates almost like a geographical Twitter for college campuses, can do just that. It has the capacity to spur cyberbullying and other situations that have negative implications.

If you have a smartphone that can run the app and something you just can’t wait to say to the Brandeis, Bentley and Lasell campuses (we get their “Yaks” and they get ours), you’re in luck. If you wanted to say something that you just wouldn’t when your name was attached to it, you could. This includes hilarious jokes, not so-hilarious jokes, questionable statements and inappropriate statements, among others. Included in the others are statements that are mean, derogatory, hurtful and wrong. Enter cyberbullying.

The power of anonymity that comes with sitting behind a computer or smartphone screen has been associated with rampant cyberbullying for years now, since before the advent of mainstream social media. One could theoretically sit behind a computer screen and emotionally torture someone, and the victim would never find out the perpetrator’s identity. The same perpetrator could also sit behind their expensive smartphone saying hateful things, without having to worry about their reputation. I would love to say that nobody at the three schools our Yik Yak interacts with thinks this way, but that would be false. There are always going to be people who hide hateful thoughts behind good reputation, people who would be eager to say harmful things anonymously. It’s a way of release. This release makes the app an outlet for hatred and cyberbullying.

Of course, it isn’t Yik Yak’s fault that some users are just born nasty or are having bad days, whatever the situation may be. The app’s rules proclaim a zero-tolerance stance on cyberbullying. In fact, the app does have in place a “down-vote system” that operates to keep negative comments at bay. Users can up-vote or down-vote Yaks they like and do not like, respectively. Once a Yak reaches a certain down-vote threshold, it is deleted. However, this does not stop the hate from occurring.

There are still a certain number of users who read the harmful Yak before it is deleted. By that time, anyone could have taken a screenshot of the post, and we can only speculate what could happen thereafter. Within the first five minutes of my research of Yik Yak, I had taken three screenshots of posts that were so vulgar that I couldn’t include them in this piece. Toned down significantly, they ranged from posts insulting our university in general to insulting an unnamed TA to insulting an entire race of people. Let me reiterate that I found this all within five minutes, not having known anything about the app when I first opened it.

Yik Yak has the potential to go horribly wrong, which is why it is labeled for the use of college students. Nevertheless, the service cannot stop all high school students from gaining access. In the past, high school students have issued bomb threats to their schools anonymously, causing panic and chaos. Although the service can trace who sent such Yaks, it cannot stop the havoc that students can cause.

Many high schools and even some colleges have asked for a ban of Yik Yak on their grounds.

Cyberbullying is a very powerful thing, and it can cause tragic responses in victims. Yes, everyone has a right to free speech, but how free can free speech get before it gets people hurt? A fine line exists here, and I believe that one can make a valid argument for free speech in favor of Yik Yak but not if lives are potentially at stake.

In a perfect world, where there is never any malice intended, Yik Yak’s premise is harmless. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Not by a long shot. And as long as we do not live in a perfect world, this fast-paced Twitter-style, anonymous app has the potential to cause harm. It just isn’t something conducive to a positive environment for Brandeis students. Why should we endorse something so counterproductive to becoming a unified campus? It’s just not worth it. Let’s do the community a favor and ignore Yik Yak.