App created by Joburg pupil causes uproar at school

Johannesburg - An anonymous social media app developed by two people, including a matriculant at Saheti School, has led to drastic action from the Johannesburg private school, and a possible lawsuit after it caused an uproar last week.

The school says the app was used to insult, degrade and defame pupils and teachers at the school, and it was consulting the police and its lawyers over it.

The app, called Count 19, which is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, allows users to broadcast an anonymous message from their location, which can been seen by everyone around them on a single feed.

"It went viral on Wednesday. We are disappointed by the students who lost restraint in a sense and posted vulgar and defamatory messages about students and teachers," Saheti executive headmaster Warwick Taylor told News24.

"It targets a child's person and character, and we want to stop the abuse where possible. Our own psychologists are here - they are taking some children out of class to deal one-on-one with the damage that was done."

A matriculant, whose name is known to News24, developed the app with Michael Jordan, who has completed his honours in actuarial science. 

Jordan told News24 that as soon as pupils heard about the app and started using it, teachers "freaked out", including the school's chairperson.

'Hate speech is a criminal offence'

Taylor said the chairperson did use vulgar language while he was speaking to the matriculant who created the app, but that he later apologised.

Taylor could not say "at this point" if the matriculant would face any sanctions.

"South African law is different. Hate speech is a criminal offence and whoever posted on it is accountable."

He said the school had also contacted the App and Play stores to pull the app.

"I'm not sure what the future holds in terms of where possible disciplinary action will be taken. The student is saying he is not responsible," he said.

"There is a possibility [of legal action]. We are not saying yes or no. We are exploring all avenues, and we are going the route of determining who the authors were of the comments."

He said the school wanted to pursue the matter while keeping its integrity intact.

'Kids do get out of hand'

Jordan said he and the pupil eventually pulled the app after the fracas on Wednesday, but put it back up a day later because of "freedom of speech".

"I got phone calls from Saheti lawyers who said they could potentially take legal action, and that we are liable for what is said on the app," he said.

"Kids do get out of hand, but it's like when you go to the bathroom and see what is written behind a toilet door."

Taylor said that in terms of the app allowing critical thinking and freedom of speech, it in fact allowed "hate speech and bigotry" and was not being moderated.

He said he met with the matriculant and his parents, and asked him to pull the app until proper filters and a moderation process was in place.

The pupil refused and was allegedly adamant that he and his business partner (Jordan) were set on making money out of it.

The matriculant did however delete the "hurtful" posts.

An email from the school to parents on October 7 said the app was programmed by a matriculant as part of a matric IT project which was marked and "ranked highly from a technical perspective".

After it went viral, an emergency assembly was held to discuss the app and the pupils' wifi was shut down.

'I did not intend to tarnish the school'

In another email on October 10, the school said "IT specialists" were working to reveal the identities of those who made the anonymous posts and comments.

According to the school, the pupil said: "I did not intend to tarnish the school. This app definitely was not intended for Saheti students. In fact, I would much prefer it if this app moved past Saheti and spread out of the bubble."

Taylor warned that other schools would face similar problems very soon.

By Tuesday morning, activity on the app was still primarily focused on the school, with users posting comments about Taylor, which girls at the school were "hot" and who was the best couple at the school.

One asked: "Do you think it's wrong that Mr Taylor had IT specialists trying to find out our ID?", while another said: "I have better discussions on this app than I do on Whatsapp and Facebook".

Some users used the app to discuss weighty topics like: "What are your views on religion? Any atheists in the house? If so... why?"

Responses stayed on topic, discussing an essay by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, whilst another post answered: "Religion is like a penis. It's okay to have one, it's okay to be somewhat proud of it, but it's not okay to go shoving down people's throats."

The precursor to Facebook, which was created by Mark Zuckerberg and another Harvard student, was called Facemash, and it initially garnered controversy for having users compare and vote on sets of two girls from the university on who was prettier.

See News24 users' comments below.

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