Researchers are Tackling Online Anonymity

Anonymous-ish app Yik Yak isn’t dead yet, but there are indications that it may be headed in that direction. We think they’ll survive in some form, but the changes they have made since they launched in 2013 speak to to the struggle they have had to outlive their initial burst of popularity.

Rutgers Yik YakWhen Yik Yak started out, all posts were anonymous. The location of the user who posted was and is central to how Yik Yak works – each Yik Yak “community” is defined as all user within a certain radius, regardless of whether they know each other. Since the initial iteration of Yik Yak was totally anonymous, any user’s identity was impossible to pinpoint unless it was offered.

A lot has changed since 2013. Actually, a lot has changed in 2016.

In March, Yik Yak introduced optional “handles” or user names. With that update, users were required to select a user name. The name could be their real name or something else, but they were not required to use that name when posting. From what we saw, few people both chose their real name and used it when posting, so Yik Yak continued to be mostly anonymous.

In April, the company introduced messaging. The world didn’t need another messaging app, but apparently the theory was that now that you have an identity, someone who likes your posts might want to privately reach out to you. We have no idea how much traction they got with messaging.

In August, the company took its latest step in ditching full anonymity, requiring users to post with their handle. Yik Yak is anonymous no more, although people still might not know who is behind your screen name.

Now researchers are digging in to just how anonymous users are, even when they don’t use their real name. Professors at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and NYU Shanghai are presenting research this week focused on Yik Yak’s GPS system. By using Yik Yak and tricking their own devices into thinking they were at various locations on a campus, they were able to use machine learning to pinpoint with great accuracy which building Yik Yak posts were coming from.

By their logic, if their machine learning techniques were able to pinpoint the location of posts, identification of actual users will not be far behind.

We understand that there are some benefits to posting anonymously, including enhanced freedom of expression. We caution social media users, however, that it is inevitable that technology will catch up at some point, and the perceived “safety” of anonymity will disappear.

Whether social media users, especially young ones, are posting online suing their real name or anonymously, there is always the possibility that your identity will be found out.

 

 

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Student Expelled Over Yik Yak Joke Sues Michigan Tech

There are far too many stories that involve teens and young adults getting tripped up using social media. Here’s another one, this one involving a Michigan Tech (MTU) student and Yik Yak.

Michigan Tech LogoLast November Matthew Schultz, a student at the school, took to anonymous app Yik Yak and posted the following: “Gonna shoot all black people… a smile tomorrow,” followed by a smiley face emoji. Upon first reading that, it is easy to think that his intention was to actually shoot people, not shoot them a smile. Schultz has insisted from the beginning that it was a joke. We tend to agree. The problem is that racial tensions were running high that month, as Black Lives Matter protests were taking place at Missouri and other colleges.

Another student screen grabbed the post, cropped out the “a smile tomorrow” part and forwarded it to MTU’s police staff, who quickly acted.

Campus police reached out to Yik Yak to identify the poster. Yik Yak did so, but also informed the officers that the post had been cropped. Despite learning the full content of the original post, the police charged Schultz with a domestic terrorism felony (charges were later dropped entirely).

University officials, based on the felony terrorism charge, elected to suspend and then expel Schultz from the school. Schultz was not permitted to appeal at any point in the process. Now Schultz is suing, claiming that the school is using him as a scapegoat to show that they are serious about race relations.

Our take on this train wreck is pretty simple. Schultz should not have posted a joke that could have been construed as a violent threat. He did, though, and now the cleanup is unlikely to be quick or simple.

That being said, this is supposed to be an institution of higher learning, and this should have served as a teaching moment. While the police were right to act quickly, they were wrong to press charges when they knew the post was in all likelihood a joke. While it was reasonable for MTU to suspend Schultz briefly while investigating the matter, the 18-month suspension and then expulsion were way overboard.

Cooler heads should have prevailed here.

 

 

 

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Yik Yak No Longer Anonymous

Back in March, we wrote a post titled “Yik Yak Is No Longer Fully Anonymous”. In it, we described how Yik Yak, which was formerly a fully anonymous, location based message board, was allowing users the option of choosing a handle. Handles could be your real name or whatever screen name you chose.

This week, bigger changes are afoot. As of today, Yik Yak users are required to choose a handle, their handle will be visible each time they post, and other users are shown a (partial?) list of the Yakkers around them when they’re logged in.

Yik Yak logoWhy the change?

Yik Yak has had more than its share of problems and bad behavior in the past, from cyberbullying to teacher bashing to users looking for drugs and alcohol hookups. It makes some sense that attaching an identity to user posts may cut down on some of the bad behavior.

There is also the element of discovery. If users see another Yakker in their area who posts content in line with their interests, they may make a connection.

Will handles eliminate all the bad behavior? Almost certainly not. Users can easily change their handle (I just did). Users can establish a second account for their hijinks. It looks to us like Yik Yak is becoming a location based Twitter knockoff, which incidentally has been notoriously difficult to manage and grow, and has huge problems with trolls and abuse.

Incidentally, on the topic of handles, back in March when we reviewed the original change, I changed my handle to my real name, assuming that I’d never use it or be identified as a Yik Yak user. Today I changed it to a nonsense handle that is in no way associated with me. If your teen also changed to his real name and wishes to post pseudonymously, he should do the same.

This highlights another issue with forums that allow users to post anonymously. They can, and do, change the rules, and those posts you thought were anonymous could become part of your permanent digital footprint. (Maybe not in this case exactly, but you get the point).

Yik Yak began as a forum to post nonsense, jokes and questions for those around you. Sometimes the trolls get the upper hand. We don’t expect that to change much.

 

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Yik Yak Intros Messaging, Could Become a Hookup App

It’s not totally a stretch to say that Yik Yak might become a hookup app.

Yik Yak logoYik Yak was founded as an anonymous, location-based social network that was originally targeted at college students. The app quickly became popular at high schools, so much so that the company took some measures to block its use at some schools. The block didn’t totally work and its popularity at high schools continues.

Last month, Yik Yak took the first steps away from total anonymity, making “handles” an optional feature. Users can select a user name – which can be their real name – and can elect whether to use it or not for each post.

This week, Yik Yak is introducing what it is calling its most requested feature – chat. Starting today, any user who posts using a handle can send a message request to any other user who also uses a handle, in their local area. Users can accept or decline any chat request from any user. Yik Yak wants to increase the bonds between individual users, but only if both users are willing participants.

With handles and private chat, Yik Yak appears to be considering the idea that cyberbullying and other abusive behaviors might see an uptick. Apparently because of this, Yik Yak has also enhanced the user support features in its Safety Center.

Yik Yak messagingWhy do we say that it might morph into a hookup app? Check out the Yik Yak post at right. From what we’ve seen, a lot of posts on Yik Yak are made by lonely folks looking for company, and not all of them are G Rated. Until now, when users wanted to connect in real life, they typically traded Kik or Snapchat handles, which necessitated at least one of them posting it publicly. Awkward.

Now, if another lonely soul sees such a post and sends a private message, it could be off to the races for the two.

We don’t have anything against hookup apps, or hooking up in general for that matter, but we want to alert parents as to what could happen. Millions of teens have downloaded Yik Yak, and use it at least occasionally.

Now would be a great time to review which apps are on your teen’s phone, and talk about how she is using them.

 

 

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Yik Yak “Handles” Are Already Backfiring

A Hamilton College junior is in Florida for Spring Break, and got a big, negative surprise this week. It turns out that while she is away, someone is impersonating her on Yik Yak.

Yik Yak logoIf you’re not familiar with Yik Yak, it’s an until-recently anonymous, location based social network that is very popular in colleges and high schools. Last week, Yik Yak announced that it has introduced “handles” – optional user names that users can assign for themselves. Your handle can be your real name, or anything else, and even if you choose a handle you can continue to post anonymously.

While a network allowing some users to choose a user name may be better than it staying fully anonymous, this update appears to be backfiring already.

The Hamilton College student’s name is Adelaide Fuller, and while she’s off campus, another user has adopted the handle “AddyFuller”. AddyFuller has been posting sexual messages on Yik Yak and causing a great deal of embarrassment for Ms. Fuller, as other students assume it is her posting.

According to an article at Tech Insider, Yik Yak representatives say they will investigate reported cases of impersonation, but as of now that account and the posts are still up on Yik Yak, and visible to the students of Hamilton College.

Yik Yak has been troublesome almost from day one. Cyberbullying and teacher bashing routinely go unchecked. They are going to need to step up their reporting system, their response times and their efficacy in weeding out the bad actors.

There is a lot of work to do here. If you’re a parent, the best idea is to keep your teens off Yik Yak altogether.

 

 

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Yik Yak Is No Longer Fully Anonymous

There is big news out of location-based, formerly fully anonymous app Yik Yak this week – the company has announced that posts and users are no longer fully anonymous. Yik Yak spelled out the changes in a blog yik-yak-logopost titled Introducing Handles!

After downloading the app update this week, users are prompted to create a “handle”, or user name. Handles can be your real name of something made up – it’s up to you.

To be clear, anonymous posting is still allowed:

  • Creating a handle is totally optional
  • Users who have selected a handle can choose, for each post they make, to do so anonymously or using their handle

Handles are being created on a first come, first served basis, so if you’ve got a unique name or you’re worried about someone impersonating you (this is a real risk), you should secure your real name handle now.

We’ve written a number of times that Yik Yak is an app frequently used for cyberbullying, school threats, teacher bashing, party crashing and a lot of other bad behavior. While Yik Yak is quick to cooperate with the police when required, they have done little to stem the bad behavior. This change will do little to address that, in our opinion.

Yik Yak handles pollIf you’re a young Yik Yak user who is up to no good, in all likelihood you will not select a handle that identifies you at all, and if you do you’ll continue to post anonymously. As you can see from the poll at right (from this article at Engadget), there may be little demand for real name posting.

Our message to parents:

  • Know which apps your child is using
  • Talk to them about how they are using them
  • Be on the alert for anonymous apps, as anonymity tends to embolden kids to acting inappropriately

Have a different opinion? Let us know in the comments below.

 

 

 

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Are Colleges Monitoring Public Social Media?

When it comes to school threats, the answer is mostly yes, but…

A big study came out recently and surprisingly, to us at least, it hasn’t gotten much attention. We say surprisingly because the topic of the study is campus safety, an issue that has been very much in the news of late.

The 2015 Campus Safety Survey was conducted by Margolis Healy in April-May of this year. In the survey they interviewed 513 campus officials – safety officers, members of school management and senior leaders – who answered questions anonymously. Overall, U.S. colleges appear to be well prepared for emergencies (86% have an emergency operations plan), but one area of particular interest to us is the survey’s look at how social media monitoring fits into school plans.

third-u-campus-safetyCampus threats, against individuals, groups or the school in general have been posted to social media with alarming frequency of late. From this month alone:

Mizzou student arrested for Yik Yak threat

 

Kean U alum due in court over tweets threatening black students

 

NEW YORK COLLEGE STUDENT ARRESTED FOLLOWING SOCIAL MEDIA SHOOTING THREAT

While some, or most, of the threats have been hoaxes, the safety of students and staff is critically important. How are colleges trained and staffed to find and deal with such threats?

Overall, the study shows that 63% of responding colleges report that they have at least one staff member monitoring public social media. It is more common for school leaders to monitor social media (76%) than for campus safety staff to do so (65%).

The key number above – 63% of schools monitor social media – appears to be overstated. 4% of those responding that they do monitor actually rely on students to report incidents, which isn’t actually monitoring at all.

Two thirds of the monitoring that is being done is conducted manually. Only 8% of schools are using monitoring software or contracting with a professional organization to do it (Let us know if you’d like to discuss a custom solution for your school).

Which social networks are the schools monitoring? The results could paint a better picture, in our opinion:

  • Facebook – 95%
  • Twitter – 76%
  • Yik Yak – 54%
  • Instagram – 49%
  • YouTube – 39%
  • Google+ – 23%
  • Flickr – 20%
  • Tumblr – 16%

What do those results tell us? Facebook is the most-used social network by adults, so it’s no surprise that it’s number one on the list. The fact that it is speaks volumes to the efficacy of the manual monitoring that is being done – it probably leaves a lot to be desired. Based on the threats posted recently, Yik Yak and Twitter are much bigger threats than Facebook. Actually, since one’s real identity is a cornerstone of Facebook (whereas Yik Yak is anonymous, and setting up a rogue Twitter account takes a minute or two), Facebook isn’t much of a risk at all.

In our experience, the networks where threats are likely to show up are, in order, Yik Yak, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Don’t bother writing that list down; it will change.

You might be able to take the temperature of your college community by following your school’s Facebook page or following a few student leaders on Twitter, but to effectively monitor for threats, a more involved effort is required. If you work at a college and would like to discuss a solution for your school, please let us know.

 

 

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

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A Look at How Yik Yak Screens Inappropriate Posts

 

We came across something interesting on Reddit yesterday. We were checking out the Yik Yak subreddit and noticed that u/ReagentX had posted the screenshot below with the title, “These are the language checks that Yik Yak uses.”

yuk-yak-code

The above code looks legit to us (but it might not be); we are waiting to hear back from the Reddit user who posted it to ask how she got it, but here’s our theory: Yik Yak is now in private beta for a desktop version of the app. Until now it has been available on phones only. It may be that the code above was obtained for someone who has access to the beta version of the web client.

The above code shows a list, perhaps incomplete, of the phrases that Yik Yak thinks might be included in a threat or harassing post, and the warnings that users receive if they try to post such a message. Note that users are not allowed to post phone numbers at all.

We ran a test to see whether Yik Yak’s warnings actually work as described in the code above. We changed the location of one of our phones to be at a college (though it doesn’t look like that makes a difference), and posted 2 messages that contained elements that are in the restricted list above.

“White knife” – two words that are flagged above yak-yak-alert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“310-314-5453” A phone number, obviously yik-yak-phone-number

 

 

 

In the first case, we could have posted the message after being shown the warning. We don’t know whether posting a message that was pre-flagged results in any further scrutiny. In the case of posting a phone number, that is prohibited and users cannot proceed past the warning screen.

We applaud Yik Yak for attempting to get out in front of messages that may be inappropriate, but assume that the folks there, and the community, don’t necessarily want the specifics in the public domain. If you are a Yik Yak user and inclined to post a threatening message, or someone’s phone number, the above code gives you some information about how to get around the Yik Yak safeguards.

We’ll update this post with more info as it becomes available.

 

 

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Yik Yak is Happy to Cooperate with Police

yik-yak-logoHere’s a friendly reminder to teens using the Yik Yak app for posting messages that could get them in trouble if they were posted on Facebook, Instagram or on any account associated with their real name: Yik Yak is not on your team.

Yik Yak is a location-based, anonymous social media platform. The reason, in our opinion, that Yik Yak has thrived whereas a similar app, Secret, was forced to shut down is precisely that it is based on location. That is key because it serves as a local virtual bulletin board for colleges, as it was intended, and high schools, where according to the founders it was not meant to thrive.

The fact that Yik Yak is anonymous and popular at schools has led to some serious problems for students, among which is a Texas teen named Christopher Bolanos-Garza who is being held on $8,000 bail for a Yik Yak threat posted at Texas A&M University on Tuesday.

Texas-AM-YikYak

What happened next is becoming all too common. Students who saw the threat reported it to the campus police, who then contacted Yik Yak for the anonymous poster’s identity. Yik Yak did cooperate, then offered the following rationale for their actions:

“Yik Yak cooperates with law enforcement and works alongside local authorities to help with investigations. We may provide information without a subpoena, warrant or court order when a post poses a risk of imminent harm.”

Bollanos-Garza was questioned and arrested within hours of posting the threat. Yik Yak does not require a warrant or subpoena – if there is a credible threat, they willing remove the veil of anonymity as quickly as they can.

Anonymous threats on Yik Yak have been a problem since the app launched, as have cases of cyberbullying, racist and homophobic slurs and teacher bashing. It has only gotten worse after the recent college shooting in Oregon was linked to a post on another anonymous site, 4chan. Rumor has it that the pranksters on 4chan have been urging other users to make threatening posts on Yik Yak.

The message here is simple: Don’t make threatening posts online, even if you’re joking and the post is anonymous. It is ridiculously easy for you to get caught. And it’s not funny.

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

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Journalist Finds a Great Use for Yik Yak

We’ve written before about how it would be a good idea for more parents to be active on Yik Yak. The anonymous app that is popular with high school and college students could use some policing. We’ve also written about the merits of some teachers getting involved in their Yik Yak community.

The use of Yik Yak in many high school buildings is blocked, but students can still access it when they’re not in school – and they are. It’s one of the most popular apps when it comes to anonymous teacher bashing, cyberbullying and party crashing.

Today, NY Times writer Farhad Manjoo tweeted the following from California:

farhad-manjoo-bikes

His tweet attracted a number of responses, many of them standard internet snark. The following caught our attention because it just might work:

yik-yak

Manjoo writes about technology for the NY Times, and often focuses on how people actually use social media and the internet. Not surprisingly, he delivered:

manjoo-yik-yak

We aren’t naïve enough to think that one parent, teacher or journalist can singlehandedly change the Wild West nature of what kids are posting on anonymous apps, and Yik Yak is no exception. We do believe, however, that every positive post has the ability to change the attitude and behavior of some users.

It’s probably too much to ask that teens police themselves, although we have seen some of that. Adults can get involved and make a difference. Maybe not to this extent, though:

ruined-yik-yak

 

 

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