Cyberbullying case hits Norwich; ‘Yik Yak’ app blocked on campus

The popular social app Yik Yak took the Norwich campus by storm in September, and then was soon blocked because of cyberbullying in a case that made the national newswires.

The popular social app Yik Yak took the Norwich campus by storm in September, and then was soon blocked because of cyberbullying in a case that made the national newswires.

In the wake of a case of cyberbullying at Norwich against a number of students, top officials at the university have launched an investigation into the situation.

According to a university statement, “No official reports of criminal behavior have been made, and law enforcement is not involved in the investigation.”

But Norwich’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Frank Vanecek, and. Peter Stephenson, chief information security officer at Norwich, both confirmed to the Guidon that a probe is taking place into harassing comments made on the social app Yik Yak.

Yik Yak allows users to post comments anonymously but it requires a cell phone number and, said Stephenson, users are not truly anonymous. “Nothing ever goes away on the Internet,” said Stephenson, adding that “Given the time and the resources, I can track anybody.”

“We are in touch with Yik Yak,” said Vanecek. He added that they are still in the process of figuring out what Yik Yak’s level of cooperation with Norwich will be in this investigation.

“It’s something that we don’t condone,” Vanecek said of the negative behavior on the app. “Norwich University must stand for something, and we stand for integrity, respect, and we said this kind of display is not what we find acceptable so we took a stand to say, we’re not going to allow it through the Norwich network,” Vanecek remarked.

Consequences for those involved could potentially be harsh depending on what the investigation uncovers, including expulsion, based on Norwich Student Rules and Regulations.

Yik Yak had gained major popularity for only about a week at Norwich before it was banned due to comments that Norwich officials found upsetting.

According to a statement by the company, “Yik Yak finds that as more users sign up and start using the app, communities begin to self-regulate in a positive way.” Perhaps the Norwich Yik Yak community was going through a phase that would have run its course as the app gained popularity, but that is unlikely to happen now.

Yik Yak hit the campus and started gaining popularity at Norwich University in the middle of September. However, on Sept. 20, Norwich President Richard Schneider blocked the app on the school’s Wi-Fi network due to concerns about student welfare after very negative comments were made about specific students.

According to numerous students who saw the comments, many were directed at an individual female. Vanecek declined to “refer to any specific person” in his interview, saying “the investigation is still in progress.”

Right now at Norwich, the frequency of Yik Yak posts is down to only a few per day. Just before it was blocked, there were typically a few per hour. Though students can still access the app, it seems that the administration’s move was fairly effective in reducing use, and definitely effective in reducing abuse online.

When asked about the possibility of Yik Yak becoming unblocked in the future, Vanecek said “No, I don’t anticipate that.”

Atlanta-based Yik Yak was created in February 2014 by a couple of recent college grads, who designed an iPhone application that would allow users to post anonymous comments to other users in their area. According to a recent Boston Globe story, students at more than 200 colleges now use Yik Yak, which first caught on at colleges in the south but has recently spread to the Northeast.

Yik Yak is hyperlocal, allowing users to post messages in a 1.5 mile radius, so at universities like Norwich, students can have an anonymous way to communicate. It has been described as a “local bulletin board” or a gossip combo of Twitter and Redditt, with short anonymous posts that users can “downvote” or “upvote.” Many comments are innocuous, ranging from complaints about wait times, humor about clothing styles or overheard comments or campus gossip.

However, recent news reports reveal an unsettling number of comments that are racist, sexist, derogatory or threatening. The Globe story notes Yik Yak is now banned at a growing number of middle and high schools. Colleges as diverse as Kenyon, Colgate, and Boston College have been dealing with racist and threatening comments on Yik Yak, according to recent news stories.

The rules for Yik Yak specifically prohibit cyberbullying of any kind and full names are not supposed to be posted. However, harassment still occurs. If five users “down-vote” a post, it is removed from the feed. Users can also report posts as abusive.

In the first week of the app’s popularity at Norwich, however, this did not occur, and, in fact, some harassing comments became quite popular on the app.

Vanecek said he was first informed of the app’s existence by an email from a staffer. “I downloaded it, took a look, and I said this type of behavior is not appropriate,” said Vanecek.

After discussing the issue with Norwich University President Schneider, the pair made the decision to have Stephenson, who is chief information security officer at Norwich, block access to the app via the Norwich Wi-Fi network.

Norwich has the number two cybersecurity program in the country. “We’re pretty innovative,” said Stephenson, explaining his actions.

“I’ve had an average of two phone calls a week wanting to know how we block, so the only thing that’s keeping other universities from taking the same action is that they don’t know how,” Stephenson said.

According to Stephenson, the school has only blocked one other site in the past, which showed “pornographic pictures of (Norwich) students, many photoshopped. But there was no outcry about it because it was not a popular site,” Stephenson said.

Yik Yak is still accessible on campus. If students use cellular data instead of the Wi-Fi network, they can get to the app.

The Norwich rules specifically address “bullying” according to Vanecek, who in an email pointed to page 39 of the 2014 Student Rules & Regulations (section VIII,B). Punishment is also spelled out in the rules on page 97, he said.

According to those rules, bullying is defined as “acts of aggression directed against a student by another student and may be repeated over time with the intent to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate the student.”

The NUSRR also notes that “bullying may involve the use of communications of varying types e.g. telephone, email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc.” The penalty for this offense is suspension, 45 days CMC & 45 tours, 30 days CMC & 30 tours, or 21-28 days CMC & 25-30 tours for the first offense. For a second offense, the penalty is either suspension or dismissal from the university.

Vanecek conceded that the administration’s move has been ineffective in stopping students from accessing Yik Yak, but he described it as an important symbolic gesture.

For those who may have jumped on Yik Yak, without thinking about it, to add comments that may be considered derogatory or threatening cyberbullying, the consequences will be anything but symbolic.

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