Yik Yak Tests Universities' Defense Of Free Speech : All Tech Considered The social media app allows users to post anonymous comments visible to others in the same area. It's become a breeding ground for racial and violent threats, and some colleges may ban the app.
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Yik Yak Tests Universities' Defense Of Free Speech

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Yik Yak Tests Universities' Defense Of Free Speech

Yik Yak Tests Universities' Defense Of Free Speech

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So while we're on the subject of apps, there is a hot mobile app on college campuses called you Yik Yak. It works like Twitter, but it is anonymous. Now, some students find it amusing, but others say it has become a breeding ground for harassment and even threats against blacks, gays and women that are so disturbing that students on some campuses have held protests calling for their colleges to block the app. Tasnim Shamma from member station WABE has more.

TASNIM SHAMMA, BYLINE: Yik Yak is an Atlanta-based social media app used at more than 2000 college campuses. Emory University freshman Nikolai Yudin breaks it down.

NIKOLAI YUDIN: It's a forum for people to post anonymous thoughts, and, you know, some of those thoughts are potentially offensive to others. But at the same time - I mean, not that I've ever seen anything, like, groundbreaking, like, wow, that's - what a great share. Well, like, sometimes, some things are funny.

SHAMMA: With the app, comments are posted anonymously, and anyone in that ZIP code can see, share and rate the comment. Mostly, there are innocent jokes about bad breakups or awful dining hall food. But students have targeted minorities and made death threats. At Western Washington University, there were calls to lynch the black student body president. At the University of Missouri, two students threatened to shoot all black students. And it's not just students of color. Post have also threatened lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. At Kenyon College in Ohio, an anonymous commentor proposed a gang rape at the school's Woman Center. In response, at least a half dozen universities have blocked the app on their Wi-Fi. But Emory may do more - trying to block it completely, even from those who access it on a cell phone. Kaya Ruffin is a sophomore at Emory.

KAYA RUFFIN: For a while, it was just, like, a lighthearted app.

SHAMMA: But then some users took it to the extreme

RUFFIN: Kind of the medium for a lot of hate that's very race targeted and very gender targeted. So it's just, like, a - it's kind of a downer, so I just avoid it.

SHAMMA: Black students in particular, like Manzi Ngaiza, say they feel targeted.

MANZI NGAIZA: It's not like this is some kid on a YouTube channel. It's someone in your geographical area, so you know the fact that you're in class with someone who really feels that they need to share this sentiment, like, oh, black kids at Emory need to go back to Africa. It's not a good feeling, obviously.

SHAMMA: Some students want Yik Yak to set up a geo-fence around the ZIP codes of Emory University.

JASON WONG: They call it fencing because it implies a boundary of some sort...

SHAMMA: Jason Wong is with Gartner Research.

WONG: ...That's based on location, and whether you're within the boundary or outside that boundary, you get different experience.

SHAMMA: Wong is an expert at helping business develop mobile apps. Geo-fencing often uses technology much more sophisticated than just GPS coordinates. It's used by advertisers when you're inside a store. It's what promotes bananas on your phone when you're in the produce aisle, and it nudges you to buy deodorant when you're in the health and beauty aisle. One way Yik Yak uses geo-fences is to block the app entirely at middle and high schools. That because it's meant for users over the age of 17. Still, Wong says, there are always workarounds.

WONG: I think it's a much better policy to explore why people are using an application and maybe explain to people why they shouldn't be using it as opposed to just simply blocking it.

SHAMMA: But blocking Yik Yak from Emory is kind of like shooting the messenger. Senior Manik Soi says students can still post offensive comments elsewhere.

MANIK SOI: There are other things like Emory Secrets where people can post stuff as well. I mean, I don't see the college banning that, right?

SHAMMA: Emory says it doesn't have a position on Yik Yak, but administrators say they will speak with black student leaders and set up a task for on possibly requesting a geo-fence. Yik Yak declined to comment for this story. For NPR News, I'm Tasnim Shamma in Atlanta.

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