University officials look to educate in wake of Yik Yak threats, controversies

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – In October, a user of the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak threatened to “kill everyone in Penn State main.”

The next day, University Police arrested the user, who called the post a prank.

“That incident opened up students’ eyes – Yik Yak is not as anonymous as you thought,” said Chief Tyrone Parham.

That threat and recurring racist, sexist and homophobic Yik Yak posts have put University officials on alert and searching for ways to best protect and educate the Penn State community. Posts may quickly vanish as new messages populate the app, but the damage can be lasting.

“Why play into it if it doesn’t have a positive impact on your success as a student or as an individual on campus or in society?” said Marcus Whitehurst, interim vice provost for educational equity.

Launched in 2013, Yik Yak is an anonymous message board for posts within a 1.5-mile radius of the user that is promoted heavily to college students. Users can elevate or delete a post by endorsing or rejecting it with an up or down vote.

At 10:29 p.m. Oct. 11, a Yik Yak post threatening a shooting at the HUB-Robeson Center appeared but vanished shortly after as users eliminated it with down votes.

The next day, students who saw screen captures of the post online notified police, who issued a campus-wide notification of the threat via PSUAlert.

Police worked with Yik Yak officials who determined which mobile device was used and the location of the suspect. (Yik Yak will release user data if a search warrant has been issued.) Hours after issuing the alert, police arrested a 20-year-old student, who admitted to the post and faces one count of terroristic threats. 

In the incident’s wake, Parham and others in his department monitor Yik Yak regularly. When posts veer into violence and ethnic intimidation, Parham wants users to take a screen shot and immediately call police at 814-863-1111.

“Normal sensitivities don’t seem to apply on this platform,” said Parham. “All of that seems to go away on Yik Yak. People are posting comments with no filter, no shame and a lack of Penn State pride.”

Whitehurst said Penn State is aiming to be proactive, informing students how to responsibly use social media. Orientation programming from the Multicultural Resource Center already includes a social media component, according to Whitehurst, and other means of education are being explored. The tone on Yik Yak, he said, undermines the University’s progress in making campus more inclusive, and when events such as rallies give exposure to racial issues, the conversations on Yik Yak inflame problems instead of encouraging a dialogue.

“The main concern from students of color who read negative comments on Yik Yak is they don’t know if those who are posting are students who may be in their class or living in the residence halls with them,” he said. “There’s a fear and a concern of safety when they read Yik Yak without knowing exactly who may be behind those comments.”

However, there are encouraging signs – those users on campus who recognize the weight of their statements. In one case, Whitehurst saw a Twitter backlash against a racially insensitive post. The student behind the posting, he said, expressed regret and learned a valuable lesson.      

Recently, Parham spotted a Yik Yak post from a despondent user that prompted multiple responses including words of encouragement and crisis response resources.

Dennis Heitzmann, senior director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services called it gratifying that users would recommend the services of his office, University Health Services and the Centre County CAN HELP Crisis Line (800-643-5432).

“In a nutshell, take posts seriously and assume they are real,” he said. “Be an active bystander if you are worried. Provide support, provide referrals and contact an authority — in particular the police — if an intervention would appear to be warranted to keep an individual safe from harm.”

Last Updated March 30, 2015