What professors should do about hate speech on Yik Yak

One says it should be embraced as a tool to educate and learn about students

Colleges shouldn't let the occasionally hateful speech on social network Yik Yak lead them to ban the application, but rather use it as a tool to better understand their campus and educate students, writes Ted Scheinman in the Pacific Standard.

What is Yik Yak?

The social network and cell phone application Yik Yak allows users to post anonymous messages that only people in the same area can read. The network has been gaining popularity on college campuses nationwide, where it has stirred up controversy. The anonymity of the network tends to attract spiteful comments and bullying, leading some campuses to ban the network entirely. 

The company has even gone as far as to try programming filters that automatically flag offensive or threatening content. Even so, the filters cannot catch everything, and students are increasingly creative in their choice of words, making messages harder to flag.

It is also difficult for colleges to ban the application outright. Blocking Yik Yak on a Wi-Fi network does not prevent people from accessing the site through their cellular network. Yik Yak has the ability to ban the application in certain geographic locations, such as high schools, but is not obligated to do so.

Embracing controversy

Yet, for all its problems, Scheinman argues Yik Yak provides a valuable way for colleges to stay in tune with students and educate them in novel ways. "Yik Yak offers faculty and executives alike a new, scary, but undeniably real glimpse into various elements of the undergraduate psyche," he writes.

In discussing the use of hate speech on Yik Yak with students in a journalism class he teaches, Scheinman found it can provide perspective to students as well. While one student said offensive "posts make clear the extent of racism on this campus," they added that when others "condemn and downvote a bigoted post, it also reminds me how I’m surrounded by thousands of smart, moral people."

Professors hijack Yik-Yak, spread positive messages

On the faculty level, when a group of professors at Notre Dame University reacted to discord on Yik Yak by writing a letter of support against hate speech, it made some students feel cared for. "It made me really proud. Sometimes I feel like I don't have a place here, but the letter made me feel welcome,” said one student.

Scheinman even uses Yik Yak in his courses, asking students to write an article covering the content of his school's Yik Yak activity. One student reacted by telling Scheinman it had caused him to question his dismissive attitude toward hate speech. 

Ultimately, Scheinman says schools cannot shut out Yik Yak any more than they can exclude the typewriter or Ratemyprofessors.com. "We cannot engage reactionaries and bigots, far less reform them, if we do not know the shape and extent of their bigotry" he writes (Scheinman, Pacific Standard, 1/29).

The takeaway: A professor advocates using inflammatory comments on Yik Yak as an opportunity to educate students, rather than banning the website outright.

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