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By Michael O’Hearn – [email protected] – Staff Writer | April 1, 2015 |
Cyberstalking creeps to anonymous level on Yik Yak according to college students. Anonymity blurs the conscious boundary of what is acceptable to say online and what isn’t, said Emily Lindesmith, a 20-year-old UNC Asheville student. Lindesmith said people behave with less rigid moral bounds on Yik Yak because they don’t have a name attached to their posts.
Sometimes this anonymous speech can be really dangerous, said Jill Moffitt, associate vice chancellor for student affairs.  She said she looks at Yik Yak occasionally for a temperature gauge of student expression.
“Stalking is an act of pursuing another person physically or virtually without that person knowing it,” said Volker Frank, a UNC Asheville sociologist.
Frank said cyberstalking does not create an exchange or relationship of evenness, but becomes more like social trespassing.
“Reporting is all over the map, but the trend is up,” said Jeff Brown, UNCA chief information officer.
A study showed individuals who present or are perceived as female online seem 25 times more likely to receive explicit kinds of threatening messages, Brown said. Seventy percent of those who do report cyberstalking are female.
The cause of the pursuit can be quite innocent, but precisely because it comes about in secrecy, it becomes suspicious or sometimes even criminal, Frank said.
“It has to be persistent, pervasive and/or severe enough,” Moffitt said, “for the purpose of hurting, defaming, or scaring and intimidating someone.”
This definition, Moffitt said, gets progressively worse depending on the dynamics of the relationship.
The app shares anonymous posts from a hyperlocal area and claims to build a social community without being put in an uncomfortable environment, Lindesmith said.
“But if it were innocent, why not make it open?” Frank said.
The convenience factor of online anonymity makes cyberstalking faster and easier, Frank said.
“Yik Yak is a Facebook newsfeed and an anonymous Twitter combined,” Lindesmith said.
Anonymous online interaction acts as a rehearsal for communication, Frank said. The endless ability to practice communicating without consequence appeals to people aiming to get better at it, Frank said.
“It is new wine in old bottles,” Frank said. Stalking itself is nothing new, he said, but Yik Yak makes for another manifestation of the same problem.
If people want to get rid of cyberstalking, according to Frank, blaming technology is the wrong way to approach the issue.
“Technology is ahead of our social understanding,” Frank said.
He said we have much more technological understanding of the phenomenon with less social and perhaps legal understanding of new technology’s actual workings.
“There are two fundamental issues that we have to balance out: free speech and the freedom of expression,” Moffitt said.
As an administrator, she said she would never want to take that away from students.
“It’s a psychological process of infatuation and addiction,” Frank said. As soon as class is over, students pull their phones out and Frank said they can’t seem go without.
“I’m hoping that there will be whistleblowers,” Frank said. Civil society has the ability and maybe the responsibility to self-correct, according to Frank. He said friends should practice tough love with each other by giving reality checks.
Moffitt said some students do find their responsible voice on the site. One school in particular, Creighton University, circulated a letter, written by student government, to students asking them not to respond to Yik Yak, according to Moffitt.
Lindesmith said the ban suggests censorship if encompassed by administration, but creates revolution or empowerment from students when they choose to ban Yik Yak for themselves.
“What we would prefer, rather than trampling over that right to expression or free speech, is to say to students to be responsible,” Moffitt said.
Regarding banning, Lindesmith said the university doesn’t need police. Instead, it needs to educate. In terms of whistleblowers, she said students voice their opinions. If a whistleblower intends to  make the community and environment safer, she said to do it.
However, on the same note, if whistleblowers’ intentions merely spread moral ideology, Lindesmith said maybe it’s not the place for that.
“If you’re posting hateful things or not responding in a helpful way,” Moffitt said, “is that really the kind of community that we are trying to build?”