Administrators at Western Washington University suspended classes Tuesday after what they called “disturbing and threatening hate speech” appeared on Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging app.
The closure comes as cases of online “hate speech” — often posted anonymously on Yik Yak — have become increasingly controversial at American universities in recent months.
“We are not talking the merely insulting, rude, offensive commentary that trolls and various other low-lifes seem free to spew … no, this was hate speech,” wrote university president Bruce Shepard in a statement to students on the Bellingham, Wash. campus.
Examples of the Yik Yak postings were presented at a press conference Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported. They included lynching references and a picture of student government president Belina Seare — who is black — with the comment, “This is one of the (expletive) who started this whole thing.”
Shepard confirmed that some of the messages appeared to be connected to a suggestion from students about changing the school’s mascot, Victor E. Viking — a white, male character — because it wasn’t racially inclusive.
Sam Carlos, a senior studying earth and space studies at the university said he doesn’t use Yik Yak, but was told by friends about racist messages concerning the mascot.
“I don’t feel threatened first of all because I have the privilege of not being a person on colour on campus … second of all I knew this was a thing on Yik Yak,” he said, adding that cancelling classes was the right call out of respect for students who didn’t feel safe.
Yik Yak, which allows users to post and view anonymous messages from within a 8-kilometre radius, has been at the centre of several recent controversies at schools across the U.S.
After a user near the University of Missouri posted, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” the company released a statement saying,
“This sort of misbehaviour is not what Yik Yak is to be used for. Period.”
So what is Yik Yak?
Yik Yak is wildly popular among college students — especially in the United States — who are eager to share their thoughts, wit and feelings with their peers.
The free app allows users to anonymously share their thoughts to others in their community or “herd.” Users can then upvote and downvote posts to show their support or disagreement.
Yik Yak is also commonly used by high school students, prompting numerous family-focused websites to warn parents about the app and how it works.
What kind of material gets posted?
Yik Yak boards are a bizarre, modern-day mash-up of the classifieds section of a newspaper and the musings of bathroom-wall philosophers — all by users who don’t need to identify themselves. Comments about parties and hookups populate Yik Yak pages in between lewd jokes and seemingly heartfelt messages of encouragement.
How has it been used?
Anonymity is part of what makes Yik Yak so attractive, but it comes with an ugly underbelly. School bombing and shooting threats have been made using the app, which has also been linked to instances of cyberbullying. Posters have also made harassing comments towards women and have used the app as a platform to preach hatred toward racial minorities.
How has the company reacted?
In an attempt to respond to its critics, Yik Yak has marked the app 17+ in the Apple and Google Play stores to block younger users from downloading it. They also teamed up with another company, called Maponics, to create “geofences” around elementary and high schools to make the app unavailable within a given distance of those locations.
The company’s most recent step is a warning system for users who attempt to post private information such as phone numbers, or write messages with potentially threatening keywords such as “bomb.”