Are Anonymous Apps Spreading Hate?
Secret. Whisper. Ask.fm. Yik Yak. Kik. Their owners are banking on making millions off of you. But are they turning a blind eye to deadly cyberbullying and cruelty?
It was a Tuesday afternoon in August when the hateful message about Sophie R. appeared on Secret, the app that allows you to share secrets anonymously for all to see—an accusation that she’d been cheating on her boyfriend, Jared. The allegation contained one of the most hurtful four-letter words you can imagine, boldly standing out in white lettering against a purple background.
It didn’t take long for others to chime in:
“I totally called that!”
“Sophie is the WORST.”
“I heard this too! Sophie is terrible and is always flirting. Jared deserves better.”
The hate piled on. An hour after the post went up, someone flagged it as bullying. But the message wasn’t removed as you’d expect, given Secret’s anti-bullying policy. Instead, more mean comments accumulated—all of them anonymous. A day later, the message was still there for all to see.
But before you put all of the blame on the bullies, what about the people making these apps in the first place—what do they have to say for themselves? “This is a real risk when you’ve got hundreds of thousands of young people on these apps,” says Frank Warren, founder of an anonymous app called PostSecret. “ ‘Bullying’ sounds playgroundish, but in the digital world, it can lead to suicide. It’s as serious as you can get.”
Warren put his money where his mouth is. Horrified by the hateful comments he saw on his app, he shut it down. That was in 2011—when the idea of sharing your secrets anonymously was a novelty. But when it comes to the new generation of apps designed to let you communicate (and, some would argue, cyberbully) incognito, the jury is still out: Do the people responsible for creating these technologies—and profiting from them—also consider themselves accountable, as Warren did? And are they behaving ethically?
THE APPEAL OF ANONYMITY
Anonymity online isn’t a new thing. Since AOL came out with Instant Messenger 18 years ago, talking with little more than a screen name to identify yourself has been easy. But now, with smartphones and a host of apps that let you chat anonymously with friends and strangers anywhere at any time, the opportunities for harassing and rumor-spreading—in other words, cyberbullying—are endless.
“The Internet is the Wild, Wild West. The rules of the world don’t apply,” says John Suler, a psychologist who specializes in how we use computers and online networks. That’s because chatting anonymously means you can speak your mind to a large group of people with little consequence. The more outrageous your posts, the more attention they’ll get. “With all these people watching, your life can turn into a reality-TV show,” says Suler. “People wind up hurting each other.”
For Lucy, 15, from Chicago, getting bullied on Ask.fm brought up a mix of complicated emotions. The summer after eighth grade, two days after she posted a photo of herself at the beach on Facebook, she started getting anonymous hate messages on Ask.fm, telling her she was flat-chested and had a gut. “These were things I was specifically self-conscious about,” she says.
Hurtful as those messages were, Lucy hasn’t stopped using Ask.fm. Some experts speculate that anonymous apps are built to be addictive —they beckon you to keep clicking, scrolling, liking, and sharing. “These apps encourage you to get bold because those kinds of comments get you likes,” says Suzana Flores, clinical psychologist and social media expert. Add FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and it becomes hard to quit— even when you know it’s not good for you, says Flores.
Though you may be using these apps on a daily basis, chances are you haven’t thought much about the masterminds behind them. The first thing you need to know: They’re young—not much older than you. Apps likes Yik Yak and Kik Messenger were made by college students or recent grads, which makes it hard to believe they didn’t have some inkling as to how young people would be tempted to abuse anonymity online.
Then there’s Daniel Singer, a shaggy-haired 15-year-old who launched the anonymous chat app BackChat when he was just 14. Though he has since shut down the app, BackChat had 3 million users at its peak. What got him and other developers so psyched about anonymity in the first place? “You don’t have to be the self you present to everyone else,” he says. But isn’t it wrong to give teens a place where they can bully so easily? “I disagree that it’s fundamentally wrong,” he says. “People can be mean in other places.”
Fair enough. But the combination of masking your identity and not seeing the real-time reaction of the people you’re communicating with makes empathy almost impossible. For that reason, anonymous apps create a space unlike any other, where it’s easy for even the nicest person to be cruel. “When you’re anonymous, you feel like there’s no consequence,” says Suler. “When I can’t see you, I can’t see from your facial expression how I’m hurting you.”
The results can be disastrous—just look at Yik Yak. When the app, which lets you post to and follow a stream of anonymous messages from users in your area, hit high schools across the country last year, it gave all students an equal platform to bully. Suddenly everyone—from the quiet girl to the loudmouth class clown—had a way to broadcast brutal insults and rumors school-wide, and they could do it within seconds. No one was safe, and chaos took over schools in a matter of hours.
While the app developers put measures in place to block Yik Yak from use on school grounds, co-founder Tyler Droll says that you—as a user—are ultimately responsible for your own actions. He explains: “At the end of the day, it really comes down to users thinking: ‘We have to have some sense of responsibility.’”
WHEN BULLYING GOES TOO FAR
Not everyone agrees with Droll. Warren, the PostSecret founder, says he learned the hard way that he couldn’t just hand responsibility over to users when he launched his app in 2011. He’d been running a popular blog that let people mail in postcards confessing their secrets, which were often heartfelt and searingly honest. Making it into an app seemed like the natural next step. And he was right: Three months after it launched, PostSecret topped iTunes’ best-seller chart for apps. Most users shared secrets, but some were bullying and posting lewd content. With 30,000 new messages going up a day, Warren enlisted dozens of moderators to make sure inappropriate messages were deleted.
But on Christmas morning that year, Warren reached his breaking point. Surrounded by family at his Maryland home, he frantically logged on to the app every hour to screen messages. Worried his teenage daughter might see something inappropriate, he made her delete the app from her phone. Things had gone too far. Warren decided to shut down the app for good, potentially surrendering a fortune in the process.
A few months later, Whisper, an app suspiciously similar to PostSecret, was launched. That set off an explosion of anonymous apps, which Warren has been watching with alarm.
So why haven’t the masterminds behind the other apps followed Warren’s lead and shut down their sites once the ugliness started to emerge? We talked to seven representatives from six apps, and no app creator wants teens to be cruel to each other. In fact, many of them believe they’re doing good by creating a way for people to connect and share secrets. But all of them know how much money there is to be made. Billions of dollars have been pumped into these products by investors counting on profits.
To address bullying without abandoning their business plans, many app creators have added features that let users block or report bullying. Ask.fm has even appointed a chief trust and safety officer, whose job is to implement new safety measures against bullying.
But no matter how many people you hire to monitor bullying, there’s no way that some incidents won’t slip between the cracks. If PostSecret had a hard time watching 30,000 new secrets going up a day, imagine the challenge facing Ask.fm, which has 180 million users across the globe, and 20,000 new questions going up per minute. “I don’t know if you can ever have enough moderators to see everything before it appears on the apps,” says Warren.
Case in point: Remember Sophie, who was bullied on the Secret app last summer? Luckily, Sophie R. wasn’t a real person, but a ruse planted by a journalist at the business magazine Fortune to test just how effective the app’s “anti-bullying” features were.
The verdict? “They failed miserably,” says Dan Primack, the journalist who posted the original secret. A co-worker who was in on his experiment reported the comment just an hour after it went up, but while the message disappeared from her feed, it was still visible to everyone else. “The only person who doesn’t see it anymore is the person who had a problem with it in the first place,” says Primack. “It gives a false sense that flagging an incident has been effective.”
Only after Primack let Secret in on his test did the message get taken down. “I have no idea how long that post would have stayed up,” he says. “It could have been there another day, a week, a month.”
If all of us had the clout journalists like Primack have to get messages removed right away, maybe cyberbullying wouldn’t be such an issue. Instead, teens are getting badgered with virtual hate while their bullies hide behind anonymity.
That doesn’t mean you are powerless to make change, however. On the contrary: “Never before in history have teens had so much power to express themselves so freely to so many people,” says Flores. “This is an amazing thing, but with power comes responsibility. You can do so much harm, but you can do so much good too.”