On Tuesday night, lines like this one appeared on the University of Missouri’s feed on Yik Yak, the location-based, hyperlocal social media app.
“I'm going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” wrote an anonymous user.
The anonymous post led to beefed up campus security on a campus embroiled in protest and turmoil. But that user didn't remain anonymous for long. It’s hard to stay anonymous when the company knows all of its users’ locations, and will ship that information to law enforcement, no questions asked. Messages like the one sent by Hunter M. Park, a 19-year-old from Missouri, who was arrested on Wednesday just hours after he allegedly posted these threats on Yik Yak.
Just like a comments section of a typical website, users post anonymously. Unlike a comments section, on Yik Yak—a site that is often littered with harassment and threats anyway—the company knows exactly where you are, where you were, and sometimes your phone number when you make a death threat.
It’s also considerably more serious when you do so: Messages are viewable only from within about one mile of the sender.
After Park's arrest, the two-year-old company really wants you to know it: Yik Yak is not your personal, hyperlocal death threat machine. The company will work with law enforcement at every turn, a spokesperson tells The Daily Beast—even when the company legally doesn’t have to.
“Yik Yak cooperates with law enforcement and works alongside local authorities to help with investigations,” Yik Yak Communications Director Hilary McQuaide told The Daily Beast. “We may provide information without a subpoena, warrant, or court order when a post poses a risk of imminent harm.”
Here’s all of the stuff that the company knows about you when you post a death threat, harassment, or anything else that isn’t lawful: the IP address from where you posted your message, the GPS coordinates (along with time and date) of your message, and a unique “user-agent string” identifier for each user. The company asks for and sometimes requires your phone number.
In other words: You’d have to be an idiot to post a death threat on Yik Yak. You’re going to get caught.
And yet, colleges and high schools nationwide are symbolically banning the app out of a fear that the best thing that can happen on it is harmless bullying. Others cite its utility for finding things like pizza on campus, or a more advanced Missed Connections-style service that can help you find love.
The podcast Reply-All detailed Colgate University’s struggle with the persistent racism that bubbled up on the app since it grew in popularity over the last two years, including messages like “It’s not my fault the most noteworthy thing your people have done is convince us not to enslave you anymore."
The shooting threat at Mizzou wasn’t even the first such Yik Yak-based terror threat at a public university in the last three weeks. Christopher Bolanos-Garza was arrested for allegedly writing “This is not a joke! Don't go to campus between 7 and 7:30. This will be my only warning!” in late October.
Some have questioned if Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, the company’s 24-year-old co-founders, who invented the app at a Furman University fraternity, are equipped to deal with the task of reining in the insidious side of anonymous, repercussion-free harassment that isn’t necessarily illegal.
Just last month, 72 civil rights groups co-signed a letter urging the company to take clearer and more decisive action.
“Colleges and universities must let everyone know that intimidating students… will not be tolerated, instances will be investigated, and perpetrators will be held accountable," the letter’s author, Eleanor Smeal, wrote.
One anonymous Yik Yak employee said that today felt like an important, decisive day for the company, as he believed its leadership came out firmly against that sort of harassment when they reiterated in the company’s blog post they would ban users who “bully or specifically target others.”
“In many of these applications, there are bad apples from here to Snapchat to Twitter. They can get pretty amplified,” he said. “We’re coming up on a two-year anniversary this month. It’s good to start year three with a stance for the community.”
The company’s co-founder Brooks Buffington took to the company's blog on Wednesday to reiterate that Yik Yak is not the place for creepy warning and hate speech.
“The threats that were posted on Yik Yak last night were both upsetting and completely unacceptable. Let’s not waste any words here: This sort of misbehavior is NOT what Yik Yak is to be used for. Period.”