Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 18, 2014

Seeing something about school shootings on Yik Yak and saying something

Filed under: Education,Social Media — by Christopher Bellavita on November 18, 2014

“Just saw a sketchy looking dude load some assault rifles into his car on the walk to campus, so that’s chill.”

Last week a friend sat waiting at the airport for her flight. To pass the time she checked out some of the posts on Yik Yak.

Her son attends a university on the other side of the country, and sometimes she skims the Yik Yak posts to see what’s happening on her son’s campus. It’s a way to get a sense of the anonymous culture college marketing departments don’t talk about much. Or at all.

“Hey that’s not even something to joke about. This better be a joke.”

When my friend saw the assault rifle post, her first thought was it’s a prank. She looked at more of the replies:

“That’s not funny. Someone should call public safety.”

“Call the cops. Don’t play around with this.”

She looked at a few posts on other topics, but her mind would not let go of the image of a “sketchy dude” putting weapons in his car.

She sent a copy of the text to her husband.

“I just saw this on Yik Yak. It’s 30 minutes old. Probably nothing. I’m at the airport. Do you have contact information for the university police? Again, it’s probably nothing.”

“OK everybody, don’t get your panties in a bunch. There’s nothing illegal about putting rifles in your car. Lighten up.”

A few more minutes went by. No word from her husband.

“There really probably isn’t anything to this. Just a bad joke. Besides, the police probably monitor Yik Yak. I’m pretty sure they’re on top of it.”

“You can’t joke about this. It’s not funny. I’m down voting you.”

“I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t go to class today. Just stay in my room.”

“Somebody should tell the police.”

My friend thought, “The chances this is real are practically zero. It’s college kids. Besides, I’m hundreds of miles away. I feel helpless.”

She knew she wasn’t helpless.

“I realized I could do something,” she told me. “I used my phone to look up the number for campus security and called them. I just didn’t want to take the chance. I told them I was a parent and told them what I saw on Yik Yak.”

“It’s probably nothing,” I told them, wondering why I kept repeating that.

“Relax everyone. My guess is it’s the ROTC cadets storing their weapons after yesterday’s Veterans Day ceremony.”

“This is scary. How come the cops don’t know about this?”

“Assault what?” asked the person on the other end of my friend’s phone call.

“Assault weapons, assault rifles. Something like that. I don’t recall exactly. It’s probably nothing. Don’t you guys monitor Yik Yak?”

“We don’t approve of Yik Yak,” the person said.

“I don’t approve of it either,” said my friend, “but you know… ‘see something, say something?’ I just saw something on Yik Yak and I’m telling you.”

“OK,” the person responded. “Thanks for letting us know.”

“Is that it?” my friend thought. “They didn’t even ask my name.”

A few minutes later she boarded her plane, feeling surprisingly pleased that she’d acted, rather than waited for someone else to act.

“I knew it was probably nothing. But if it turned out to be real, and I hadn’t done anything,….”

She did not complete her sentence.

Yik Yak is a geo-fenced, micro-blog version of Twitter. It’s a social media (some say an anti-social media) smartphone app that allows people in a geographically constrained area to anonymously communicate with other nearby people. I’m not sure how constrained the area is. I’ve read it’s anywhere from a 1.5 to 10 mile radius.

Yik Yak appears to be intended for use primarily by college students. It blocks anyone from posting if they are near a high school or middle school.

Sometimes the posts are amusing:

— “There is no reason to tailgate me when I’m going 50 in a 35. And those flashing lights on top of your car look ridiculous.”

— “Sister: Where is Nicaragua? Me: Central America. Sister: So like near Kansas? Me: I see poles and body glitter in your future.”

— “FUN FACT: If you take out your intestines and lay them end to end, you will die.”

Other times, the posts are ugly: Racist Posts On Yik Yak Prompt Student Protest At Colgate University

One writer believes Yik Yak is “the most dangerous app I’ve ever seen.”  Another author suggests Why Your College Campus Should Ban Yik Yak.  A third article writes about Yik Yak as A Weapon That Should Be Treated Like One, describing it as a “bulletin board for bomb threats.” (At least two people have been arrested for using the app to make bomb threats. Yik Yak gave law enforcement the names of the people who made both threats.)

The application also has its defenders. Here are some comments in response to the charge that Yik Yak is dangerous:

— “I find your view on Yik Yak very cynical. I hardly ever see hateful yaks, and if I do, they are gone within seconds because people down vote them.”

— “Yik Yak builds strong community and opens up honest discussions. It has the potential for some abuse but overall I think it is a fun, brilliant app.”

–“Anonymity is the only thing we have left to guarantee our first amendment, sad but true. Yeah there will be people that will abuse it, but we have to take the bad with the good in the ideal of freedom.”

My friend’s plane landed a few hours later. When she turned her phone back on she had a voice mail message.

“This is Lieutenant [—-] at the [—- ] University Police Department. Please call me when you get this message.”

She called the number and spoke to the police officer. The department checked the Yik Yak post about the assault rifles and, based on the post, conducted a sweep of the entire campus. The city police checked the neighborhood surrounding the campus.

They did not find anything.

Was the post a hoax? An inappropriate attempt at humor? A warning that disrupted a potentially significant event?

It was probably nothing.

Like it always is.


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