Yik Yak rumors spread concern and confusion on W&L campus

The anonymous app allows students to post misinformation without consequences, causing readers to not know what to believe

Bri Hatch

Beth Reed, head residential adviser of Graham-Lees Hall at Washington and Lee, first heard the rumor from a concerned facilities worker. 

“She asked me, ‘Beth, have you heard anything about this?’ And I said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’” Reed said. “I hadn’t heard anything.”

Reed immediately texted her fellow RAs to see what they knew: after all, if there really was a lice outbreak happening in the first-year dorms, something had to be done. 

“And I realized after I’d sent that message, that is something that could cause general fear,” Reed said. “All my RAs were like, ‘When did this start happening? What’s this about? Do I need to be worried for my own personal health?’ So general consensus, we were all worried about it.”

Reed had also heard from many of her own residents, who had “freaked out” about the possibility of contracting lice. So, she decided to call a meeting with all the RAs to figure out next steps. 

“One of the big things in this case was wanting to find out if it was a rumor, because if it wasn’t, action needed to be taken immediately so there wasn’t a complete breakout in the dorms of lice, which is horrendous,” Reed said. “And then if it wasn’t a problem, we needed to communicate clearly to residents that it was fictitious.”

That’s when Reed heard from a fellow RA that the lice rumor was spread on YikYak, the popular app where users can anonymously post comments to all other members on campus.

“And after I heard that it had come out on YikYak, to me, the believability of it decreased significantly to the point where I wasn’t worried about it,” Reed said. 

Why? Because YikYak is notorious for housing misinformation. The lice rumor was only one of many false claims made on the app. According to Washington and Lee students, rumors are regularly circulated on the platform. 

“I’ve seen people saying something mean about someone, or spreading rumors about someone, and actually name-dropping them in YikYak,” said one senior who asked to remain anonymous. “But they don’t have to face the consequences, which I think is unhealthy.”

The anonymous nature of the app makes it difficult to determine which posts are true, and which are false. The danger in this, according to Reed, is that people who post harmful rumors can not be held accountable. She understands, for example, that the person who started the lice rumor might not have had bad intentions.

“But it automatically implicated more than 20 people in work,” Reed said. “The person who started the rumor might not have realized how serious it could have been if it were true, but it is. That kind of speaks to a greater issue with YikYak in general, it being anonymous, because there’s no repercussions for that. People never are going to learn that it has so many consequences.”

The student who started the lice rumor (who agreed to speak anonymously about their actions, to preserve their identity like YikYak does) did not expect people to actually believe it. 

“I posted a couple of comments about lice. But when I woke up in the morning, a ton of other people had added on to it being like, ‘oh my god, there’s lice,’” the student said. “So the rest of the school did the work for me.”

This shows that Washington and Lee students are too trusting of the information on YikYak, the rumor-starter said — which could be harmful in some situations. 

“I feel like everyone just takes everything said on YikYak literally, and I’m pretty sure like 90% of the stuff on that app is not true,” the student said. “My lice rumor was pretty harmless. But someone could spread rumors about people or groups of people on campus and everyone would take it as fact.” 

These types of rumors, targeting specific students or groups of students on campus, are common on YikYak. 

“I think a lot of [these rumors] have to do with appearances, predominantly,” said Blake Ramsey, ’23. “This is a small campus, so a lot of people know a lot of people. And if these rumors spread just unprovoked with no basis whatsoever, people begin to judge that person.”

Reed said these rumors often target specific sororities or fraternities. 

“I know at the beginning of the year, there was honestly a lot of cyber bullying going on, with people naming certain organizations we have here on campus, and making comments about their weight or their eating habits,” she said. 

Reed thinks the responsibility to combat rumor-spreading falls on the students to think before they post — a step often forgotten with an anonymous app. 

“You’re in a community with lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds and perspectives. And something that you may think is funny, or it’s not gonna affect somebody else, it actually does,” Reed said. “I think people should put just a little bit more sensitivity into their words.”