Missouri racial threat: How well do colleges police social media?

The University of Missouri did not shut down after a threat to shoot black students. Some students think it should have. Gauging social media threats can be hard.  

Tanzi Propst, Columbia Missourian/AP
The University of Missouri's Student Center remains largely unpopulated Wednesday morning, Nov. 11, 2015, in Columbia, Mo.

The Wednesday morning arrest of a young man accused of making threats to shoot black students at the University of Missouri in Columbia eased some concerns there about safety.

But the decision by campus officials to operate on a regular schedule Wednesday prompted a range of responses. Some comments on social media congratulated the university for its quick response. Others questioned whether the threats, posted Tuesday on the anonymous app Yik Yak, had been taken seriously enough, given the turmoil on campus that led the president to step down after protests over racial issues.

In an age of pervasive social media and periodic campus shootings, the incident offers a glimpse into the high stakes threat assessments that college officials have to make every day – and the public ritual of second-guessing that often dogs them no matter what they decide.

There are too many threats to shut down campus for all of them. But no one wants to be the next Umpqua Community College or Virginia Tech.

“It’s a really complicated calculus…. You are now doing threat assessment publicly in real time, and, the expectation is, instantaneously – and that adds another layer of complexity in … keeping campuses safe and making sure everybody has an opportunity to learn,” says Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications, a higher education public relations firm. 

On Tuesday night, the MU alert system sent out a brief message to the community: “MUPD is aware of social media threats and has increased security. Call 911 immediately if you need help.”

By 6 a.m. Wednesday, an update said the suspect was in custody and the campus would be operating normally. It noted, “Safety is the university’s top priority and we are working hard to assure that the campus remains safe while information is obtained and confirmed.”

Various media outlets reported Wednesday that 19-year-old Hunter Park, a white student at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, about 95 miles from Columbia, was the suspect and was being held in Columbia on $4,500 bail. Campus officials at S&T said no weapons had been found.

Some groups at MU had taken their own precautions by Tuesday night, however. The Legion of Black Collegians canceled its Wednesday Senate meeting, tweeting, “Stay home. Stay safe,” the Columbia Missourian reports.

A student who said she felt comfortable going to class Wednesday morning told The Associated Press that it was clear many others did not. “It’s a ghost town,” she said.

One student tweeted Wednesday morning that professors were “crazy” to expect him to take an exam “while having a threat placed on my life.”

Another took offense at an early note from university officials trying to discourage the spread of “rumors” about threats. “So someone can make a bomb threat and they cancel school but gun threats against minorities is a rumor!?” one person tweeted.

Sifting social media

Social media has its pros and cons for college officials. “It makes it very easy for somebody who is mad about a grade on an exam to say something that’s taken as threat when it wasn’t unintended that way, or to actually make real threat,” Ms. Hennessey says. At the same time, it also can help investigators track important information, and can help universities communicate with students and staff. 

The challenge is keeping up with the ever-evolving world of social media. It’s the standard now for campuses to have threat-assessment teams, “but it’s another thing to make sure those people are properly trained,” says Steven J. Healy, a campus safety expert and managing partner of Margolis Healy, a campus safety consulting firm. 

They often need partnerships with local, regional, and even federal agencies to properly assess the credibility of threats, Mr. Healy says.

When a threat is made in cyberspace, law enforcement officials can request information about the post and the computer or individual account associated with the post, but smaller agencies and campus cops don’t always know the best ways to do that, says Parry Aftab, a cyberbullying expert and founder of Wired Safety, an online education and advocacy group.

“It’s amazing how often I’ll get an email at 3 in the morning from someone in law enforcement saying, ‘I need to reach somebody in an emergency, is there an after-hours number at Facebook … or Instagram … or YouTube?’ ” Ms. Aftab says. The major sites do have law enforcement liaisons, she says, but some of the smaller sites do not.

The recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, which appears to have been foreshadowed on at least one social media site, highlighted why many colleges are now signing onto vendor services to “data-mine social media for things that might alert the campus to a possible situation that would threaten members of the campus community,” says William Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “Social media is a new thing for us – a lot of us are learning how to use it, and some campuses are very up to speed.”

Yik Yak

Students from Virginia Tech to Fresno State have been arrested in relation to Yik Yak threats in recent years. At least one has served some jail time.

The app offers a sort geography-based cyberversion of a local bulletin board. But because posts are anonymous, it has faced criticism for providing a forum for comments that amount to cyberbullying and harassment. 

The app’s website warns its users that it can share records of IP addresses and other information to locate someone when it is contacted by law enforcement seeking information, either with a warrant or in a case of a threat of imminent danger. The arrest of Mr. Park suggests that information from Yik Yak may have helped investigators in this case. (MU spokespeople did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment.)

Yik Yak co-founder Brooks Buffington posted a statement Wednesday on the company website that read in part, “It’s our hope that the range of discussion on MU’s campus can help to bring about positive resolution and a better understanding within the community. But there’s a point where discussion can go too far – and the threats that were posted on Yik Yak last night were both upsetting and completely unacceptable.”

A student (not at Missouri) who had organized an online petition against Yik Yak after being bullied notes that she met with the founders last year and they promised to add safety features to the app. Last month, she started up her petition again, saying, “those promises have not held up.” 

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