Campaign to change the conversation

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March 26, 2015

By Jillian Birkholz, '15

The men of the Men's Development Institute, left to right: Lincoln Mullings '15, Edwin Torres '16, Michael Swearingen '17, Ross Capouch '17
Photo: Nicole Pederson

Hidden behind digital pseudonyms, social media users are encouraged to freely express ideas and opinions. However, with this anonymity comes a lack of accountability which can create a toxic online environment.

At the beginning of January, Ross Capouch started paying more attention to what he felt was just that kind of toxic environment on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app. Many of the posts from Yik Yak users on the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University campuses contained derogatory language targeting people based on various aspects of their personal identities such as race, gender and sexuality.

"My primary concern was the hate speech," said Capouch, a sophomore music major from Portland, North Dakota. "Not only is that against Yik Yak's rules, but that is so far from our Benedictine values. I don't think there's a place in the world that would think that's OK."

Capouch saved some of the most demeaning posts and later shared them with other members of the Men's Development Institute (MDI). In February, Capouch partnered with fellow MDI member Michael Swearingen, a sophomore computer science major from St. Michael, Minnesota, to launch #OccupyYikYak, a coordinated attempt to change the conversation on Yik Yak. The group publically shared the harmful posts with the CSB/SJU community on its Facebook page and in other spaces while encouraging Yik Yak users to post more positive content.

"We're a community that prides itself on being a community. A good one. A really tight knit one," Swearingen said. "The very existence of some of the things we saw was a major threat and/or a piece of evidence against that."

Yik Yak allows users to anonymously create and view posts, known as "Yaks." Unlike other social media networks, the app doesn't require users to create a profile. Yik Yak sorts posts based on location rather than friends or followers. The Yaks appear in a feed and can be viewed by anyone within a 1.5-mile radius (CSB and SJU have separate feeds, although a CSB student can read the SJU feed at SJU, and vice versa). And, students at other colleges can't read the CSB or SJU Yik Yak.

Users have the ability to respond to other Yaks as well as "upvote" or "downvote" them. If a Yak receives five downvotes, it is permanently deleted from the feed.

In addition to encouraging positive posting, the #OccupyYikYak campaign leverages the app's upvote and downvote functionality to encourage users to force the removal of offensive posts.

"The focus changed from awareness to action, which I thought was a really big step for us," Capouch said. "We're all in it together and trying to make our communities a better place."

Since its launch in 2013, the app has been criticized, notably recently in "The New York Times", for its potential to foster cyber-bullying. The app has been banned from most middle and high schools via geofencing technology that disables viewing of posts within a certain distance of the schools. Some colleges have blocked access to Yik Yak on their Wi-Fi networks in an effort to discourage disparaging posts. However, this administrative barrier to app access has raised complaints from students who feel that this is a violation of their right to free speech.

"A lot of people think that when things go wrong, faculty and administration have to step in and do something about it and that's so wrong," Swearingen said. "We're adults and we should be able to handle things like that and I'm glad that we were able to."

Although the CSB/SJU administration did not put restrictions on students' use of the app, MDI's #OccupyYikYak campaign was criticized by many students on campus for censoring free speech.

"The idea behind #OccupyYikYak is to fight speech with speech, instead of completely censoring it like is so easily done," Swearingen said. "Instead of the negative being the louder voice, let's have the positive be louder. And that's honestly, in the end, the most democratic thing you can do."

There was plenty of positive feedback regarding the campaign, but the negative response opened a dialogue on campus about the difference between hate speech and free speech.

"Now we have something to talk about," Capouch said. "It's like the monster in the closet. If you don't talk about it and open up that dialogue, things are only going to get worse. I personally really hope that that's one thing we accomplished with this campaign, is to show people what's in the closet."