Activist groups push schools to monitor Yik Yak

by Paulomi Rao | 10/29/15 8:43pm

A letter signed by 72 activist groups that was presented to the Education Department’s civil rights office last week argued that colleges have a legal obligation to respond to sex- and race-based harassment occurring through the anonymous social media app Yik Yak.

The letter — which urged lawmakers to remind colleges of their responsibility to ensure student safety under Title IX — was addressed to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and assistant secretary Catherine Lhamon.

The 15-page letter was split into four main sections addressing concerns that online harassment disproportionately affects women and people of color, that anonymous social media applications like Yik Yak are frequently used for sex- and race-based harassment prohibited by Title IX and Title VI, that schools have failed to appropriately respond to harassment occurring through Yik Yak and other social media applications and that schools need to be reminded of their legal obligation to address sex- and race-based harassment.

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported allegations that the University of Mary Washington — which is currently under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for these allegations — has neglected its responsibility to uphold student safety by citing First Amendment objections to shutting down Yik Yak. Other universities have had issues with harassment on Yik Yak as well.

Mary Washington’s Title IX coordinator sent an email to students informing them that the university had “no recourse for such cyberbullying” and instructed students to instead file a report with Yik Yak if they became the subject of threatening comments, according to the letter sent to federal officials.

Many students at campuses across the country are finding themselves in similar situations. Problems presented at Duke University, Clemson University and Kenyon College went unresolved because of administrators fear banning Yik Yak would be an infringement on students’ freedom of speech, the Chronicle reported.

Administrators at Dartmouth declined to address known sexual harassment occurring on Yik Yak and other anonymous posting sites, according to the letter sent to federal officials.

Debra S. Katz, a lawyer working on a Title IX complaint case brought against Mary Washington, announced she had successfully persuaded the Civil Rights Office to investigate the University on allegations that the school exposed students to a sexually hostile environment by failing to confront online harassment, the Chronicle reported.

A representative from Katz’s law firm declined to be interviewed for this article.

Yik Yak is frequently unavailable on high school campuses due to potentially threatening language, Feminist Majority Foundation policy and research director Gaylynn Burroughs said. She said that college-aged students are not behaviorally different enough from their high school peers to warrant a lack of regulation on Yik Yak on college campuses.

There should be some form of monitoring over Yik Yak on campuses so that the app can be used as a positive educational opportunity, Burroughs said.

“We are here to tell people about the consequences of their actions — you cannot harass people with impunity,” she said. “Right now, we have to meet with the Civil Rights Office and talk about some of the suggestions we made and what they are willing to do. We are hoping to follow the University of Mary Washington given the way Yik Yak is now negatively being used.”

Activist groups like the ones responsible for the letter to the Civil Rights Office can make a meaningful difference in addressing social media-based bullying, Burroughs said.

“So far, we have a broad range of organizations — racial justice groups, social groups, [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] groups — and we are here and together on this, hoping to leverage each other in a positive way,” she said.

Just two weeks after leaders of several of the organizations mentioned in the letter met to talk about the issues raised in the document, Burroughs suggested that more groups be involved to address social media “pollution.”

Sociology professor Janice McCabe — who teaches Dartmouth’s “Youth and Society” course — said that issues around social media bullying have been raised in her classes in prior years.

“In my four years here, we have been talking about gossip long before Yik Yak,” she said. “It’s honestly going to happen regardless, but social media speeds it up and makes it harder to escape. We can ban one, but another one comes up and there is a real possibility that we won’t be able to ban all the possibilities.”

McCabe, along with many students, said she saw the worst of anonymous social media platforms in spring 2013 when students published threatening posts on the anonymous, Dartmouth-only social media site Bored at Baker targeting students who protested during a Dimensions of Dartmouth event.

In winter 2014, Bored at Baker came under fire after a member of the Class of 2017 anonymously posted a guide outlining how to rape another student and included that student’s name and residence hall. After the target of the post made the incident well-known on campus, students organized a vigil emphasizing community values.

“Bored at Baker was very destructive to the Dartmouth community and became more hurtful because it was specific to the school. But in my experience, it seems Yik Yak is just annoying,” Clare Mathias ’18 said.

Reaction to social media harassment and social media apps generally is different on each campus, Burroughs said.

At the Mary Washington, students have welcomed the issues raised at their school and some have joined with activist groups to call for change.

“No one should have to go to school and face constant harassment — we aren’t talking about simple name calling but severe and persistent harassment and intimidation,” Burroughs said.

Karina Korsh ’19 said the main issue with social media apps is anonymity.

“I think Yik Yak becomes problematic when people forget to show respect,” she said. “Being anonymous brings out the best and worst of people.”

Bullying and harassment are not confined to anonymous social media apps, however, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Michael Bronski said focusing on apps may fail to address broader issues.

“Although I’m sympathetic to stopping bullying, I’m a little bit suspicious of attacking the social media sites, even if they facilitate [harassment] because bullying would exist regardless of things like Yik Yak,” he said. “My concern is that we focus too much on social media but not profoundly on the social systems that allows this to happen. We need to focus on the root causes of hostility and hatred so attackers do not have the power they have today — Yik Yak just seems like a venue.”

Burroughs offered reasoning for the letter and its support.

Harassment makes it impossible for students to learn effectively at their schools, Burroughs said.

“We see this as a serious problem, and it’s unfortunate that people have been using the first amendment as a sword and shield for this type of situation,” she said. “It’s like going to class and see a giant blackboard in the back of your class saying ‘I wish that we could rape all of these women,’ and you don’t know who put it up. Nobody can learn in that environment.”