Last week’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has thrown a spotlight on a little-known social media app called Yubo that has a small but growing user base of mostly young people.
The French tech startup has received little attention in the U.S., at least from adults, but since the May 24 shooting more than a dozen Yubo users have come forward to say that they interacted with a Yubo user who they believe was the 18-year-old gunman, Salvador Ramos.
Their stories highlight a freewheeling culture hosted on the app for young teenagers, and the perpetual migration of young people to new, undermoderated social media platforms.
Lina, 17, thought she recognized the Uvalde gunman, so she opened the camera roll on her phone and began to scroll until she found four screenshots and a video saved from Yubo.
In the screen recording, a user whom she believed to be Ramos can be heard saying 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 conversation after the user described being sexually aggressive with an ex-girlfriend.
Multiple teens and young adults who use Yubo said they reported the account believed to be Ramos’, but the app appeared to take little or no action. Yubo users say it isn’t uncommon for bad behavior to go unpunished on the app, which they say has a culture rife with unwanted sexual aggression and content intended to offend other users.
Some journalists have nicknamed Yubo the “Tinder for teens” because it includes a swiping feature similar to the one in the adult dating app used to meet strangers, and Yubo combines that with other features such as audio chat and live broadcasting to create an especially freewheeling experience.
Lina and another Yubo user who spoke to NBC News said that they have observed teenage boys entering video chat rooms on Yubo and exposing themselves, as well as sending unsolicited nude photos over chat.
Yubo isn’t the first platform where teens have exchanged sexual messages and video chats with ease — in February 2021, a BBC investigation found instances of young boys exposing themselves on camera to strangers on the streaming site Omegle — but after Yubo users connected Ramos to the platform, some are speaking out about what they see as a perceived lack of moderation on the app.
Matt Navarra, a consultant to social media companies, said Yubo is “wide open for abuse.”
“It’s as dangerous or as risky as many social platforms are, but its teen-friendly design and the combination of many features of the app make it potentially a perfect storm for incidents and controversy amongst its users, unfortunately,” Navarra said.
Ramos’ alleged presence and behavior on an app like Yubo highlights the continuous creation of lightly moderated social media spaces for young people, and the inevitable negative attention placed on startups when they are forced to confront the behavior of their user base.
Yubo, which is based in Paris, said that it is cooperating with law enforcement and investigating one account in relation to the Uvalde shooting. It also said it had banned the account in question.
Yubo said it has a range of safety features including buttons to report inappropriate content, chat filters and monitoring of livestreams by software and employees.
“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 are committed to implementing extensive safety measures and tools,” including age and identity verification and different kinds of content moderation, the company said.
Yubo grew by attracting a young user base
Yubo, formerly known as Yellow, launched in 2015. The next year, Tinder for the first time banned anyone under age 18, driving teens looking to meet other teens to other apps.
Much of the focus of Yubo is on meeting new people and small group chats. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, said Yubo appears to have benefited from a reaction against apps such as Instagram where there’s pressure to broadcast to a big audience to get likes and followers.
“What many of them are craving is more of a one-on-one experience with friends — something that’s not as curated or performative,” she said.
The activities of building a social circle and meeting new people has moved online for many teenagers, Twenge said.
“They are much less likely to hang out with each other in person than prior generations were,” Twenge said.
Yubo received a surge of attention in 2020 while teenagers were quarantined with little to do, according to data from Apptopia, a firm that monitors mobile app usage. In April 2020, there were 756,241 downloads in the U.S., more than double the 343,062 downloads in April 2019.
Monthly U.S. downloads have since fallen back to 343,642 this April, according to Apptopia. That made up about 39 percent of all downloads worldwide.
“It saw a lot of growth during the pandemic, like a lot of these social apps did,” said Navarra, the consultant, “because of lockdown and people needing somewhere to chat with people, chat with friends, share content and read content.”
Yubo’s user base is still small by the standards of social media networks.
About 60 million people have signed up for the app, and 99 percent of them were 13 to 25, the tech news website TechCrunch reported this month. The startup is backed mostly by European venture capital firms and has raised $65.7 million from investors, according to Crunchbase, a company that tracks tech startups.
The company hasn’t said how many people use the app on a daily or monthly basis, a more common way for social media apps to measure success.
Yubo is following a pattern set by other social media companies where a startup targets teenagers as a way to gather new users, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports tighter regulation of technology aimed at kids.
“These companies really see big bucks targeting young people, through either ads or other services, and there are no protections,” Chester said.
Chester, whose organization pushed a 1998 privacy law that applies to kids under age 13, said he doesn’t trust tech companies to regulate themselves for teenagers and that Congress should pass a new law.
Yubo has struggled to enforce its community guidelines
Experts and teenagers said they believed Yubo hasn’t put forward the amount of resources it needs to in order to adequately moderate content and respond to violations of its terms of service such as racist and anti-LGBTQ slurs.
Screenshots of Yubo chats on other social media platforms, such as Reddit, show teenagers sexting and requesting nude photos from each other. Yubo users have told news outlets including The Washington Post that a user believed to be Ramos frequently made aggressive, sexual comments on the app, and that they reported him for bullying and other infractions but never heard back or saw any permanent action taken by the company.
“There were always people who would say very vulgar stuff,” Lina said.
“It wasn’t the craziest thing for someone to say something really reactionary, so when he would say crazy things on live, a lot of people didn’t take it as seriously as they should have,” she said.
Lina later posted the screenshots from Yubo on Twitter and TikTok in an effort to debunk false claims spreading on the internet that a transgender person unconnected to the Uvalde shooting was responsible for it.
Navarra, the industry consultant, said Yubo hasn’t been ignorant of the potential for abuse and misuse, noting a recently added and more robust age-verification system.
“It has got some safety features and moderation features,” he said. “Of course, none of these are foolproof, so there is still lots of concern and rightly so from the parents of teenagers who are using the app.”
In April, Indiana state police said they were seeking to speak with anyone who communicated with a specific Yubo account in connection with the 2017 murders of two teenagers. Similar profiles to the one on Yubo also appeared on Instagram and Snapchat, NBC Chicago reported.
Even the teens using Yubo are questioning whether to stay on the app. Lina, who joined a discussion about Ramos on Yubo the day after the shooting, said that other Yubo members were asking the app to take responsibility.
“It started with one girl trying to rally people against the app, saying ‘We should hold Yubo accountable,’” Lina said. “In her experience, she had reported his account multiple times and it was never taken down.”