This week, as the University of Missouri was fulminating with student protesters, faculty members, and hunger strikers accusing the school of ignoring longstanding campus racism, veiled threats against Mizzou's black students were found on Yik Yak, a social media app where users can post anonymously to localized networks.
Two white men were arrested in connection with the incidents: 19-year-old Hunter Park, a student at a Mizzou sister campus; and 19-year-old Connor Stottlemyre, a student at Northwest Missouri State University.
In a year in which threats against people of color and school shootings have crescendoed, the threats on Mizzou’s Yik Yak could not be ignored. By my count, the threats made against Mizzou students represented the 40th reported instance of a threat of mass violence communicated through Yik Yak, the messaging app du jour on high school and college campuses for idle gossip that increasingly acts as a clearinghouse for unsavory and occasionally unlawful behavior. Here's the map:
The Atlanta-based app was founded in 2012 and amassed a respectable market valuation of $400 million the following year; the app can now be found on more than 2,000 campuses. The app works by leveraging cellphone GPS data to create area chat networks that extend about a few miles. Yik Yak's patina of anonymity is its selling point: All you need to sign up and start posting anonymous messages is your phone number.
It's also become an attractive place for troublemakers: In April, two students, one at Virginia Tech and one at Oklahoma State University, were arrested for using the app to make threats of mass shootings on their campuses; the FBI was called in on the latter. There have been at least 12 reported incidents of violent threats being made on Yik Yak since October, including:
- A student at an Emory University satellite campus was charged with making a terroristic threat after posting, ““I’m shooting up the school. Tomorrow. Stay in your rooms. The ones on the quad are the ones who will go first.”
- A Texas A&M student was also charged with making a terroristic threat after posting, "THIS IS NOT A JOKE! DON'T GO TO CAMPUS BETWEEN 7 AND 730 THIS WILL BE MY ONLY WARNING."
- An anonymous student at Radford University in Virginia posted, "Tonight is the night. (sic) That Radford is going to be on the news just watch. Thank you everyone," prompting an investigation.
- A football player at Fresno State University was arrested for posting that he planned to “release his] frustrations” with gunfire.
In certain instances, it can take just hours for a suspect behind a suspicious Yak to apprehended, like the one implicated at Texas A&M. But in others cases, like one at Oklahoma State this past April, it can days, requiring the additional step of reaching out to a cell phone service provider to track down a suspect.
Yik Yak says it retains discretion over what information it's willing to release, even in emergencies: Law enforcement officers must submit an emergency request as an email attachment bearing official letterhead, and it must include an explanation of why the information requested is necessary to prevent the harm, and why the information is needed without waiting for the legal process to run its course.
At the same time, these reported threats don't offer the full snapshot of the racist and misogynist language that can be found on the app every single day—incidents highlighted in a letter sent to the Department of Education from civil rights groups complaining about the app's presence at high schools and colleges.
"Anonymous race-based harassment through Yik Yak [is] pervasive on college campuses," the groups said, citing instances of harassment at American University, Mary Washington University, and Clemson University, where a scattershot of hateful Yaks managed to target East Asians, LGBT students, Mormons, and women.
Yik Yak sees itself as "a communication tool for location-based communities" that’s intended to spread news about and provide a forum for discussing what's going on in an area, according to company rep Hilary McQuaide. The app, she said, already has a system in place for tackling suspicious posts. This includes warnings to users asking if they’re sure they want to post language the app detects as menacing, and a “round-the-clock” moderation team that responds to flagged posts. Safety “is top of mind,” she said.
But in their letter to the Department of Education, civil rights groups said the app is not living up to its promise of positivity and inclusion. Instead, they said, it’s facilitating harassment. "Anonymous cyber-harassment can be just as, or even more, threatening as harassment from readily identifiable individuals," they said.
Some schools have successfully banned the app from being accessed through their wi-fi networks. But Yik Yak continues to fight attempts by schools to block the app from IP addresses associated with school communities, citing First Amendment rights (they do deploy such blocks at high schools and middle schools).
Slate's Amanda Hess has sided with the app, writing that the civil rights group’s letter’s calls for making it easier to ban the app go too far. She cites other positive effects Yik Yak has had on campuses, including an incident where a student posted suicidal thoughts and was quickly talked off the ledge by other Yakkers.
The coalition’s letter tosses Yik Yak into the same category as other anonymous apps like BurnBook, but not all anonymous networks are created equal. BurnBook is named to evoke the nasty rumor book featured prominently in Mean Girls. Meanwhile, no social network has been more aggressive about stemming harassment and encouraging community than Yik Yak has.
If the app can’t be banned, there must be better ways to curb threats and harassment. The civil rights groups, which do advocate for bans, also suggest colleges find ways to immediately report all anonymous online threats to police, even if that includes having someone monitoring online networks at all times. They also recommend teaching students, faculty, and administrators alike about about online harassment and its after-effects.
Regardless of whether Yik Yak intended to become the prevailing anonymous messaging app on college campuses, its place in the college ecosystem is undeniable. Yik Yak is dragging colleges into larger conversations about nascent digital spaces—and whose job it is to keep them safe.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.