Tripod Editorial: The Dangers of Anonymous Libel Online

As of Thursday, Oct. 28, Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta. This felt like a relevant topic to touch on since the bulk of our Tripod editorials this semester have focused on the shortcomings of social media and the internet. According to a Washington Post article,   the change was made by the company in an effort to “distance itself from a social-media business embroiled in crisis” and to “rebrand itself as a forward-looking creator of a new digital world known as the ‘metaverse.’” CEO Mark Zuckerberg urged Facebook users to adjust their thinking about the company, and even acknowledged that the app had been “ubiquitous and problematic,” but that they have somehow outgrown these labels in a rather short period of time. The change was obviously prompted by the controversial allegations that the company tracked real-world harms that the platform served to exacerbate and exposed vulnerable communities across the globe to a plethora of dangerous content. As we stated in the Sept. 14 issue editorial, the company showed little to no remorse during the hearings regarding such allegations. The move to improve their reputation through a name-change was surely not motivated by any sort of moral obligation to those they ill-affected, but rather to save face and continue to reign as a social media powerhouse. 

In a similar vein, at Trinity we have recently seen a resurgence of use of the app called Yik Yak, a platform where students can anonymously post funny quotes or witty banter, but often things get taken a bit too far, as is common when anonymity is paired with internet platforms. Yik Yak can be exceptionally entertaining, with common sentiments shared by students we don’t necessarily know, or may in fact know well. However, it is incredibly easy for this platform to be abused and so it has been time and time again, getting banned from many schools. It has popped up over time, and I’m sure many of us can recall a time in high school when Yik Yak was all the rage, ending in trips to the principal’s office or calls home to parents because of cyberbullying allegations. The app is a digitized version of writing on the bathroom wall, permanently cementing sentiments that could even constitute slander into the fabric of the metaverse. Written defamation, or libel, is a civil wrong and can warrant a lawsuit. Not to mention, some of the things written about students that are referenced by name can yield long term psychological issues, damage to confidence, and mental health issues. In 2017, the New York Times explored some notorious incidents involving the app, which included graphic messages promoting sexual assault and violence at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. In March 2014, a school in Massachusetts evacuated its students twice after Yik-Yak-based bomb threats, and during the same month, a high school in California was put on lockdown for a similar reason. In October of the same year, a student at Middlebury College posted an open letter about being targeted on the app for her weight, relaying that she felt “exposed, betrayed, and mostly embarrassed.” 

The app’s privacy policy, at least back in 2014, did not allow institutions to identify users who posed a risk without a subpoena, court order, search warrant, or an emergency request from a law enforcement official with a compelling claim of imminent harm. In response to complaints at around this point in time, Yik Yak created filters to recognize certain keywords that qualified as threatening language. What makes Yik Yak particularly exasperating for users is it’s hyper-localization, since it generates a feed for whoever is using it by their location and who is posting nearby. Thus, when students use the app, they’re aware that the people who are posting the sentiments are as close as one door over from them in the dorm, or even across the room in Mather. 

It’s a common trend that apps like these will disappear and reappear again on campuses, from high schools to colleges and universities. So why then, if they were once banned from use, are they allowed to resurface a few years later? Sure, the app may have some benefits like a strange sense of bonding amongst those that choose to post on it, and some funny, relatable content. But the app is essentially designed to foster a space that users can hide behind, giving them free reign to target whomever they feel compelled to target without any reprecussions because of the convenience of anonymity. We urge you to refrain from engaging.

-KJN        

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