The second story of May 5th’s Campus Memo blithely read “Yik Yak Blocked from College Servers Starting Today.” Students were told that “by close of business today … ITS will permanently block the app from all College servers.” Among those involved in the decision process were Vice President for Communications Jim Reische, Title IX Coordinator Angela Voos, President Raynard Kington, Dean Michael Latham, and Grinnell Police Chief Dennis Reilly. Half an hour after students were informed of the decision, Yik Yak was no longer accessible for users on campus Wi-Fi. There was no open forum. There was no community input. The Yik Yak ban is poorly executed, fails to solve the underlying problem, and is clear, blatant censorship by our institution. However, worst of all, it does not align with the Grinnell mindset of self-governance and transparent relationships between students and the administration.
If you’re not familiar, Yik Yak is like an anonymous version of Twitter. Short, anonymous messages are sent and voted upon by other users within a few miles of the original poster. Messages with many down votes are deleted from the feed.
Over the last few months, Grinnell has had a number of prominent instances of cyber-bullying and hate speech in this anonymous forum. Students were targeted for their race, sexual activity, and willingness to speak about sexual assault. The college was evidently unable to locate the original posters of these hateful remarks, as Yik Yak is dedicated to maintaining the rights of their users to speak freely and so discloses users’ information only with a court order.
As I move into the second part of this article, I want to make very clear that I do not support those who abuse anonymity to harass other people.
Yik Yak offers a way to put up a “Geo-Fence” around institutions which request they do so. Within this fence, Yik Yak will not allow users to participate in the community, rendering the application useless. However, the process used by Grinnell College was not this one. Instead, ITS installed logic such that any request to Yik Yak’s servers was instantly rejected. This may sound familiar: China’s infamous censorship program works in much the same way. This does have the intended effect (Yik Yak does not work when connected to Grinnell College Wi-Fi), but also has the collateral effect that users on the network cannot access Yik Yak’s official website.
As I write the word “censorship,” I want to again address the actual problem we’ve had with Yik Yak: there are individuals in our area who have used an anonymous social platform to perpetrate cyber-bullying. However, this solution does not solve this problem. In reality, the administration’s solution only prevents students from using Wi-Fi to use Yik Yak. The app is still fully functional for students who can access the internet through cellular data plans. What this solution does do is set precedent for future institutional censorship.
I return to my initial declaration: people abusing anonymity is not exclusive to Yik Yak, it is common on the internet. There are countless websites which function similarly to Yik Yak, simply without the convenience of a mobile app. Our response to students abusing these services should not be to censor access. Instead, we should focus on our community. Yik Yak provides a feature to flag posts which are offensive or targeting. The question we should be asking is “why haven’t we been reporting these posts” or at least “why don’t we have enough people down-voting these posts,” rather than “how do we get rid of this service?”
The question remains: how do we respond? The administration has made the first move; now it’s our turn. At SGA’s Joint Board meeting on May 6th, a resolution will be proposed officially condemning the methods and actions used by Grinnell College’s administration to block Yik Yak on campus. This is not a request to reverse the ban, it is simply the student body telling the administration that censoring our access to the internet without sensible discussion or warning is not something we as students will tolerate.
The Yik Yak ban is poorly executed, fails to solve the underlying problem, and is clear censorship by our institution. It does not align with the Grinnell mindset of self-governance and open communications. In well considered words of one student, “it is easy to hide and ignore problems. Fixing them takes work.”
If this is something you care about, I encourage you to email your senator (you can find who your senator is by checking your cluster) or come to the Joint Board meeting at 8PM in JRC 209. There is a “soapbox” time where any students are allowed to speak on any topic they find pertinent. Let your voice be heard.