On a Thursday night last fall, a crude debate laced with racist rhetoric lit up smartphones around La Salle University, a Roman Catholic school at 20th Street and Olney Avenue in a predominantly black area of Philadelphia.
“I respect the BlackLivesMatter movement and all. I just don’t like how they try to say if you’re black, your life is automatically harder than that of an Asian, Hispanic, white person. F*** you,” said an anonymous post on the popular social media application Yik Yak.
“Y’all have all this s*** to say about black. People. Worry about yourselves. Y’all races aren’t holy saints so don’t try to throw shots at us,” responded someone else.
“Hey, that’s the s*** black people perpetuate. I’m just using your own weapon against you. Black people are always saying blacks can’t be racist because they lack power,” the original poster answered.
It’s all anonymous.
There’s no telling who posted the remarks on Yik Yak, an app that allows users within a five-mile radius to post, reply, like and dislike — all anonymously.
But last fall’s outburst of obscenity-laced talk has continued in spurts during recent months. It’s deeply disturbed La Salle administrators, faculty members and the student-run school newspaper, which editorialized against it. While critics recognize users’ right to free speech, they are concerned about the impact of Yik Yak on the school’s neighbors and on civil discourse among an undergraduate student body of more than 4,300 students.
“It is indeed true that all are free to post anonymous and often inflammatory remarks on Yik Yak,” said James Moore, the dean of students, in an unusual email sent to all students after last November’s Yik Yak postings in the run-up to Homecoming Weekend. “But I propose that it is not the best that our La Salle students and community can do.”
Alan Wendell, the senior associate dean of students, was more blunt: “Yik Yak really caters to the developmentally less-evolved people,” he said. “I mean, if you have to hide behind anonymity to say trashy things about other people, how mature are you?”
The unsupported assertions about race on Yik Yak come at a time when La Salle’s demographics are dramatically changing. Founded in 1863 by the Christian Brothers, La Salle was established to provide a practical education for the city’s working class Catholics, a predominantly white group descended from Irish and Italian immigrants. Today, the majority of the students are still white, but racial minorities now make up about 45 percent of the student body. African-Americans, at 18 percent, are the largest group.
The demographic change, which has accelerated in recent years, has been felt everywhere from student activities, which now include a step team, to the classroom, where new courses, like “Black Religion in America,” are popping up.
Anthony Paul Smith, an assistant professor of religion who developed the class, was so upset after last November’s racist postings on Yik Yak that he took to social media to rebuff them.
The pushback is important to see, but our black students and Muslim students shouldn’t have to put up with this on their campus.
— Anthony Paul Smith (@APS_Superego) December 8, 2015
Smith, who is white, joined Yik Yak himself and urged other faculty to do the same.
“I think we have all been dismayed by the way racism of many kinds, though especially anti-black racism, has been allowed to fester online in social media spaces,” he wrote to faculty colleagues. “Nowhere has this been more vile than the anonymous app Yik Yak.”
Based in Atlanta, Yik Yak entered app stores in 2013 and took off the following year as it spread to college campuses across the country. Its developers tout the app on their website as a tool that “instantly connects people to everyone around them so they can share news, crack jokes, offer support, ask questions, and interact freely.”
Among other things, the app has a “nearby” feed, which allows users to observe and interact with other users within a five-mile radius of their location; a “my herd” feed, which allows users to monitor a specific location’s feed even when outside the five-mile radius; and an “explore” section, which allows “Yakkers” to interact within topical feed sections like presidential candidate debates or college football games.
If a post gets five dislikes, it disappears from the feed. To guard against misuse by minors, developers have set up geofences — imposed by GPS location data — which disable functionality of the app on a high school or middle school campus.
The company says that it uses filters and pop-ups to warn users if they attempt to post offensive language or images including those that are racist, obscene, defamatory, threatening or demeaning to any person or group. If necessary, it can kill user accounts or take down posts. On request from law enforcement agencies, it can also release users’ personal information to authorities so they can track down threats of violence.
Guarding against misuse
“Guarding against misuse is something we take incredibly seriously, and we’re constantly working to enhance our protective measures,” said Olivia Boger, a Yik Yak spokeswoman.
Even so, Yik Yak continues to cause turmoil on campuses across the country. Over the past year, incidents involving terroristic threats on Yik Yak have been reported at Missouri, Charleston Southern, Fresno State and Penn State, to name a few.
“I’m going to stand my ground and shoot every black person I see,” wrote Hunter M. Park, a student at Missouri University of Science and Technology, who was arrested following his Yik Yak threat.
Use of Yik Yak to bully students has led to suicides or attempted suicide. In late fall, Jacob Marberger, a resident of Cheltenham and a student at Washington College in Maryland, killed himself following a slew of comments posted about him on Yik Yak.
Yik Yak can also stir up incriminating gossip. For example, a La Salle student was wrongfully accused in Yik Yak chatter last fall as the probable rapist in a campus sexual assault. Within hours, the student, who asked not to be named for this article, was considering dropping out of school.
“People should not use social media to put down one another,” the student said. “Especially when one doesn’t even know the person and is just going by what they hear.”
Nobody but the administrators of Yik Yak has any idea how many La Salle students are registered on Yik Yak, how many actually use it, and what they use it for.
But extrapolating from an informal poll he conducted in December among some 90 students enrolled in his three classes, Joel Garver, an assistant professor of philosophy, estimates that about 75 percent of the student body has used Yik Yak at least once and, of that, 86 percent have encountered content they regard as racist, bullying, misogynistic or homophobic. Eighty percent of students who said they were somewhat active on the site also reported that they had “downvoted” offensive content.
“I’m not sure what to do with the information, which is both very discouraging (the amount of hateful content on Yik Yak) and somewhat encouraging (the willingness of students to downvote their fellow students),” Garver wrote to a faculty group. “But I wanted a more accurate picture to help understand the nature and extent of the problem.”
Quiet on most days
On a typical day, there isn’t much conflict on the Yik Yak feed around the La Salle campus. The usual posts are centered on finding a sexual partner, classes, the school’s wi-fi, or Spongebob Squarepants quotes. Every once in a while, someone will post a controversial political question.
Other times, things can get nasty. On Dec. 7, for instance, the La Salle-area Yik Yak feed exploded with racially-charged posts and conversation that continued for several hours.
“… Minorities will not be happy until whites are enslaved like blacks were. Y’all want want want want. You never give,” said one user.
“…Isn’t it great when we resort to name calling. In 20 years you’ll be in chains again,” said another.
“OP is a racist b****,” said one comment.
To which the OP (original poster) responded, “Aw I’m I? I don’t really care. F*** PC bulls*** . . . Can’t wait until Trump takes over and puts y’all back where you belong.”
Yik Yak and the First Amendment
While administrators like Wendell decry the kind of dialouge found on Yik Yak, there is little they can do to combat it without stepping on First Amendment rights.
“There may be some legitimacy for people to be talking about this stuff, but this isn’t the way to do it,” Wendell said. “What does it say about our community when this is the way we have these conversations?”
Some students have decided to scrap the app, though not necessarily because of its sometimes racist content.
Explained senior Amir Tucker, ” I downloaded the app. I just thought that s*** was little weird. I got rid of [it] . . . I didn’t want to use it.”
Said Andrew Sneed, a sophomore: “There was a lot of stuff on there that was really irrelevant to me as a student and as a person.”
Ken Houston, a nearby resident of the school who is black and serves on a community advisory group to the university, said most neighbors likely aren’t aware of Yik Yak because they can’t afford the Internet and live in “survival mode.” The presence of racism in the community is nothing new, he said.
“Racist comments and deeds are all around us,” Houston said. “We are trying to live through them as they hit us personally.”
Germantown Beat is a website produced by student journalists at La Salle University.