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.

Almost.

November 16, 2014

Not in my name

Filed under: Media,Radicalization,Social Media,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 16, 2014

Early Sunday morning a web-based video claimed to show the dead body of Peter Kassig, age 26, a US citizen. The army veteran had started a small humanitarian not-for-profit operating in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey providing basic medical services and supplies to refugees. In 2013 he was captured by Syrian insurgents. The group claiming responsibility for his execution is the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

If confirmed, this would be the fifth beheading of a Western captive by the group.  The Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS or Da’ish) has become notorious for using an extensive toolkit of organized violence: beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.  Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed using means clearly designed to engender fear and compliance.

The Kessig video is the longest IS production yet.  While it includes a warning to Western — especially US and British — leaders, the propaganda is designed mostly to advance the IS brand-strategy and to recruit young men. The beheadings are a hook to ensure Western media attention that will prompt the target audiences to seek out the videos (they are not that difficult to find) where the rest-of-the-story is persuasively pitched as an answer to their search for adventure and meaning.

It seems to be working.   Most recent intelligence estimates find at least 15,000 foreign fighters from up to 80 nations are currently attached to a variety of insurgent groups — not just IS — in the Syrian civil war and its overflow into Iraq. (Potentially an interesting comparison:  During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 the total number of international volunteers serving with Republican forces is estimated have totaled 35,000.)

But it may also be emerging that even as IS is achieving some tactical success among a very small slice of disaffected — mostly — young people, it is prompting a blow-back by many others that could have significant strategic implications.

As was the case with David Haines and Alan Henning, British aid workers previously beheaded, the evidence seems overwhelming that Kessig was only involved in delivering compassionate care to those displaced by the Syrian civil war.  There is also no evidence that the two journalists who have been dramatically beheaded had any particular animus toward the Syrian insurgency.  The killings have not only been brutal.  They have, to most minds, been innately unjust.  For most Muslims this is a perversion of their faith.

The video above was developed — apparently independently — by a group of mostly young British Muslims following the execution of David Haines.  It crystalizes a movement that has spontaneously emerged  and is growing online very much contrary to the purposes of IS.

See more at  https://twitter.com/hashtag/notinmyname. Social media — not so much YouTube — is where most of the activity is taking place.

A shared revulsion to IS is also prompting others to perceive, conceive, and act in ways previously unseen.  On Friday, probably while the terrorists were putting finishing touches on their snuff video, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others were gathering for an unprecedented Muslim prayer service hosted by the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC. The sermon by Ebrahim Rasool included, “We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility but keenly aware that it is not a time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The challenge for us today is to reconstitute a middle ground of good people… whose very existence threatens extremism.”

As the American experience with war has too often  demonstrated, tactical skill can seldom overcome a strategic deficit.  How ought our anti-IS strategy reflect the strategic vulnerability of our adversary?

June 17, 2014

A Smart Practice: How two California police departments use social media to engage with their communities

Filed under: Social Media — by Christopher Bellavita on June 17, 2014

I came across a presentation — below — describing how two police agencies in California’s Silicon Valley use social media.

Their strategy is not the run-of-the-mill advice to  “Get a facebook account and start tweeting.”

It is about a philosophy, instead of a program. It’s about selecting a voice, defining your engagement strategy, seeing social media as an ecosystem, conducting virtual ride-alongs, shaping how people make sense of in-progress events, rumor control, and more.

The presentation identifies what needs to happen for the strategy to succeed, what can go wrong, and how to anticipate and mitigate potential downsides.

The presentation was developed by Lt. Zach Perron (Palo Alto PD) and Capt. Chris Hsiung (Mountain View PD).  It probably works better when one of the officers is presenting the slides. But the slides also work on their own.

I consider what they propose as a smart practice (http://bit.ly/1i7335R) instead of a best practice.  Few agencies will be able to adopt all elements of the social media strategy, but every public safety agency should be able to take something away from the ideas in the presentation.

Here’s the presentation: (or go to this link). Use the on-screen arrow to advance the slides.