Last week’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, brought to light a little-known social media app called Yubo, which has a small but growing user base of mostly young people.
The French tech startup has received little attention in the United States, at least from adults, but since the May 24 shooting, more than a dozen Yubo users have come forward to say they have interacted with a Yubo user who they claimed was 18 years old. old shooter, Salvador Ramos.
Their stories shine a light on a freewheeling culture hosted on the app for young teens and the perpetual migration of young people to new undermoderate social media platforms.
Lina, 17, thought she recognized Uvalde’s shooter, so she opened her phone’s camera roll and started scrolling until she found four screenshots and a recorded video from Yubo.
In the screen recording, a user she believed to be Ramos can be heard saying that someone “deserves to be raped”.
Lina, who spoke to NBC News on the condition that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, said she recorded the live chat after the user described being sexually aggressive with an ex -girlfriend.
Several teens and young adults who use Yubo said they reported the account believed to be Ramos’s, but the app appeared to take little or no action. Yubo users say it’s not uncommon for bad behavior to go unpunished on the app, which they say has a culture plagued by unwanted sexual assault and content intended to offend other users. .
Some journalists have dubbed Yubo the “Tinder for teens” because it includes swiping functionality similar to the adult dating app used to meet strangers, and Yubo combines this with other features such as audio chat and the live broadcast to create a particularly free wheel. live.
Lina and another Yubo user who spoke to NBC News said they observed teenagers entering video chat rooms on Yubo and exposing themselves, as well as sending unsolicited nude photos via chat.
Yubo is not the first platform where teenagers have easily exchanged sex messages and video chats – in February 2021, a BBC investigation revealed cases of young boys exposing themselves on camera to strangers on streaming site Omegle – but after Yubo users hooked Ramos up on the platform, some are talking about what they see as a perceived lack of moderation on the app.
Matt Navarra, a consultant to social media companies, said Yubo was “wide open to abuse”.
“It’s as dangerous or as risky as many social platforms, but its teen-friendly design and combination of many app features potentially make it a perfect storm for incidents and controversies among its users, unfortunately,” Navarra said.
Ramos’ alleged presence and behavior on an app like Yubo highlights the continued creation of mildly moderated social media spaces for young people, and the inevitable negative attention given to startups when forced to confront the behavior of their user base.
Yubo, who is based in Paris, said he was cooperating with law enforcement and investigating an account in connection with the Uvalde shooting. He also said he banned the account in question.
Yubo said it has a range of security features, including buttons to report inappropriate content, chat filters, and software and employee monitoring of live streams.
“Yubo recognizes and takes seriously our responsibility for the safety of our users,” the company said in a statement.
“We remain proactive in developing safeguards to protect our users while on the app and we are committed to implementing extensive security measures and tools,” including age and birth verification. identity and different types of content moderation, the company said.
Yubo has grown by attracting a young user base
Yubo, formerly known as Yellow, launched in 2015. The following year, Tinder banned anyone under the age of 18 for the first time, pushing teens looking to meet other teens to other apps.
A big part of Yubo’s goal is to meet new people and chat in small groups. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, said Yubo appears to have benefited from a backlash against apps such as Instagram where there’s pressure to broadcast to large audiences to get insights. likes and followers.
“What a lot of them crave is more of a one-on-one experience with friends — something that’s not as organized or performative,” she said.
Activities of building a social circle and meeting new people have moved online for many teens, Twenge said.
“They are much less likely to date in person than previous generations,” Twenge said.
According to data from Apptopia, a company that monitors mobile app usage, Yubo caught the eye in 2020 as teenagers were quarantined with little to do. In April 2020, there were 756,241 downloads in the United States, more than double the 343,062 downloads in April 2019.
Monthly downloads in the US have since fallen to 343,642 in April, according to Apptopia. This accounted for around 39% of all downloads worldwide.
“It’s grown a lot during the pandemic, like a lot of these social apps,” said Navarra, the consultant, “due to lockdown and people needing a place to chat with people, chat with friends , share content and read content.”
Yubo’s user base is still small by social media standards.
About 60 million people have signed up for the app, and 99% of them are between the ages of 13 and 25, tech news site TechCrunch reported this month. The startup is mainly backed by European venture capital firms and has raised $65.7 million from investors, according to Crunchbase, a company that tracks tech startups.
The company didn’t specify how many people use the app daily or monthly, a more common way for social media apps to measure success.
Yubo follows a pattern set by other social media companies where a startup targets teens as a way to bring in new users, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports stricter regulation of technology aimed at children. .
“These companies really see a lot of money targeting young people, through ads or other services, and there’s no protection,” Chester said.
Chester, whose organization pushed for a 1998 privacy law that applies to children under 13, said he doesn’t trust tech companies to regulate themselves for teens and that Congress should pass a new law.
Experts and teens said they believe Yubo hasn’t put forth the amount of resources it needs to properly moderate content and respond to violations of its terms of service such as racial slurs and anti-terrorist slurs. -LGBTQ.
Screenshots of Yubo chats on other social media platforms, such as Reddit, show teenagers sending sexts and asking for nude photos of each other. Yubo users told news outlets including the Washington Post that a user suspected of being Ramos frequently made aggressive and sexual comments on the app, and they reported him for bullying and other charges. violations, but had never heard of or seen any permanent action taken by the company. .
“There were always people saying very vulgar things,” Lina said.
“It wasn’t the craziest thing for someone to say something really reactionary, so when he said crazy things live, a lot of people didn’t take it as seriously as they should have,” she said.
Lina then posted Yubo’s screenshots to Twitter and TikTok in a bid to debunk false claims circulating the internet that a transgender person unrelated to the Uvalde shooting was responsible.
Navarra, the industry consultant, said Yubo is aware of the potential for abuse and misuse, noting a recently added and more robust age verification system.
“It has security features and moderation features,” he said. “Of course, none of this is foolproof, so there’s still a lot of concern, and rightly so, from parents of teenagers who use the app.”
In April, Indiana State Police said they were looking to speak to anyone who contacted a specific Yubo account in connection with the 2017 murders of two teenagers. Profiles similar to Yubo’s are also appeared on Instagram and Snapchat, NBC Chicago reported.
Even teenagers using Yubo wonder if they should stay on the app. Lina, who joined a discussion about Ramos on Yubo the day after the shooting, said other Yubo members were asking the app to take responsibility.
“It all started with a girl trying to rally people against the app, saying ‘We should hold Yubo accountable,'” Lina said. “In her experience, she had reported her account multiple times and it had never been deleted.”