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Colleges try to manage Yik Yak problems

Offensive messages are often posted on the social media app.

The app has been used to spread discriminatory messages and threats of violence on college campuses — as it was at UNC in the fall. A UNC freshman was arrested and charged with a felony in November after posting a Yik Yak message that threatened an explosion in the Pit.

Victoria Ekstrand, a UNC media law professor, said blocking these apps doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

“It’s a difficult subject area because some of this anonymous speech is obviously harmful and is not protected by the First Amendment, but some of it is,” she said. “So to create a rule that outright censors the entire site is a rule that is overbroad.”

Ekstrand said there are a few other anonymous social media sites that have been forced to shut down because of mounting lawsuits over violent threats and hate speech.

Norwich University, a military school in Vermont, banned the app from campus Wi-Fi as a result of negative comments directed toward some students.

UNC senior Ashley Winkfield said some of the thoughts shared on Yik Yak following demonstrations against the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., were racially charged. Other students have also spoken out about harassment on the app this semester

Cam Mullen, Yik Yak’s lead community developer, said the company takes the threats made on Yik Yak very seriously.

“Yik Yak is a tool, and tools can be used and tools can be misused. And while there are people that misuse our app, it’s a really small percentage of our user base,” Mullen said.

“What people often don’t mention is all the other ways you can use it for good and all the positive cases and how Yik Yak has united communities.”

Jimmy Williamson, police chief at the University of Georgia, which faced a similar threat in September, said there is no one way to handle threats conveyed through social media.

“Every one of them is different; every one of them has a different twist,” he said. “There is no standard response to any of these.”

Mullen said Yik Yak has responded to these incidents by requiring users to be at least 17, blocking high school students from the app and appointing a team of moderators. The app also has a new feature that looks for key words associated with violence — such as “bomb” — and asks users if they’re sure about posting a yak containing one of them.

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Sameer Hinduja, criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said social media applications like Yik Yak aren’t inherently bad. The problem lies with certain users.

“With every app, there will always be a minority of people that screw around a little bit,” he said. “For whatever reason, I feel like kids or teens or young adults, they don’t think about the long-term implications.”

One student at Towson University was expelled from the school for threatening to conduct a shooting at the university in October.

Ray Feldmann, Towson spokesman, said he was pleased with the way students handled the situation by reporting the message.

“In this world that we live in, students are exposed to so much on social media,” he said. “It’s easy to look at something and just dismiss it offhandedly as, ‘This is just someone who’s angry, somebody who’s upset.’”

Winkfield said her main issue with Yik Yak is the lack of user accountability.

“I think the app has the room to be a good thing, but it also leaves a lot of space for people to say things without any type of accountability,” she said.

“I know people have been concerned about the potential banning of Yik Yak because they feel like it limits their own free speech,” she said.

“Free speech isn’t just, ‘You can say whatever you want without any consequences,’ and Yik Yak gives that platform.”