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Office of the President

Presidential Commission on Race and Diversity

Briefing on Yik Yak Issues

Background

Yik Yak is a social media application that users access on their phones.  It allows users to make anonymous posts that can be viewed by others who have the app on their phones and who are within a small geographic radius (approximately 1.5 to 5 miles).  Yaks posted to the app can come from anyone within the geographic radius.  For instance, some posts that can be viewed on the University of Rochester campus can refer to matters that are occurring on MCC or RIT campuses.

There have been messages that many regard as offensive and some that have prompted the University to reach out to Yik Yak.  On February 20, 2015, University leaders were made aware of three Yik Yak posts that were offensive and threatening to some students.   The University asked Yik Yak to identify the users and Yik Yak did not respond.  A few days later, University asked the Rochester District Attorney’s office to issue a subpoena to obtain the information.  We understand that the DA’s office issued subpoenas to Yik Yak.  We further understand these subpoenas related to a potential violation of New York Penal Law sections 240.30(1)(a) and/or 240.30(3).  These subdivisions are misdemeanor charges of aggravated harassment in the second degree.

On March 5, 2015 the Office of Counsel emailed a letter to Yik Yak demanding a take-down of the offending posts, suspension of user privileges of the poster and identification of the poster.    There were several conversations back-and-forth between Yik Yak officials and Rick Crummins of the Office of Counsel during the following week.  On March 11, 2015, a representative from Yik Yak confirmed that Yik Yak banned the user that posted one of the offensive statements and asked us to send any additional posts that could help Yik Yak identify who posted the other two.  The representative indicated that similar privilege suspension might result.  Additional posts were re-sent to Yik Yak on March 12.

Yik Yak did not respond to the subpoenas issued in the spring.  On November 18, 2015, the DA’s office again reissued the subpoenas for information related to the identity of the persons posting the offending “yaks.”

On November 23, 2015 another threatening post appeared on Yik Yak.  Our Public Safety Department is working with the DA’s office to see what can be done.  The post was taken down shortly after it appeared.

The University’s Office of Counsel understands that Yik Yak is currently cooperating with the DA’s office with respect to the subpoenas but we can’t learn any more information at this time since it relates to a pending criminal investigation.

 

Possible Actions Concerning Yik Yak

    1. Rely on Yik Yak’s features.
      Yik Yak itself has created some features for dealing with abusive posts or posts that go against its stated terms of service. (1) Users can report any individual yak post which contains offensive content or targets someone with potential harm. (2) Yik Yak has installed a filter for specific keywords that prompts users who are about to post a potentially abusive yak with the following message: “Pump the brakes. This yak may contain threatening language. Now it’s probably nothing and you’re probably an awesome person, but just know that Yik Yak and law enforcement take threats seriously. So you tell us, is this yak cool to post?” And then the user can either cancel the post or go ahead and continue to post.  (3) If there is a net difference of five “thumbs down” responses to the post, the post will automatically disappear. 

      We can also communicate with Yik Yak to see if there are other features that Yik Yak could add or other things that potentially could be done to screen out abusive or threatening posts.

    2. Community Response.
      As a campus community, we could develop and promote a campaign to vote down offensive posts. As part of this campaign, or as a separate initiative, we could educate the community on issues of race, racism, speech and social media. 

    3. Communicate Dissatisfaction with Yik Yak Investors.
      A letter-writing campaign can be directed to Yik Yak and its known investors (Sequoia Capital is one big investor) calling on the app to take stronger action against cyberbullying and hate speech. 

    4. Ban Yik Yak from University servers.
      The University could block Yik Yak from its servers, meaning that any traffic occurring through the app cannot pass over the university’s wireless network. Taking this action would not stop users from accessing the app or participating in the local “yak” scene. It would mean that users would need to use their own cellular data plans to do so. Depending on a user’s setting on their cellphone, this access through their own cellular plan may happen automatically, when the app discovers that it cannot establish a connection over the university Wi-Fi networks.

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