Two social media threats on opposite US coasts put college campuses on edge this week, highlighting the challenge schools face in deciding how seriously to take online threats of violence.
On Monday, a Fresno State University freshman was arrested for posting online threats to open fire on the California campus.
Across the country, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill spent a good part of Tuesday investigating an ultimately baseless threat made on YikYak, an online community that has been dubbed an anti-social network where, critics say, has become a safe place to say unsafe things.
The university held classes normally, but issued an alert before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, warning the campus community about an anonymous online threat to the campus, the Associated Press reported. By the afternoon campus officials announced after investigation that they had found no threat to the university community.
This is not the first time that YikYak has been used to issue threats. As a completely anonymous but location-specific media platform, it has become a relatively easy place to publicize a threat without getting caught.
Earlier this week, the Fresno State campus community went on alert over a YikYak shooting threat. The "Yakker" complained about social rejection and announced Monday that at 3 p.m., "the time is here," mentioning an M4 Carbine. Officials prepared to evacuate the campus, but a freshman football player, identified as Christian Malik Pryor, was arrested in connection with the threat the same day, the Sacramento Bee reported.
YikYak is popular with teens and college students and has featured in other threats to campus communities, including a bomb threat, also at the University of North Carolina, that occurred almost exactly one year ago. Police investigated the student union using police dogs on Nov. 20, 2014, but they arrested the "Yakker" responsible – an 18-year-old student named Daniel Fischbeck – later that day, NBC Charlotte reported.
"When they advertise that they are anonymous they don't mean that the FBI or local law enforcement cannot determine who the sender is," former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker told NBC Charlotte.
The YikYak post that caused alarm at the University of North Carolina campus on Tuesday read, "Tomorrow at 949 am is a time you don't want to be on campus."
The app's creators put up a "geo-fence" to make YikYak impossible to use on high school campuses after parents expressed concerns about more personal threats – anonymous digital bullying, The Christian Science Monitor reported:
Despite its innocuous purpose, users can post comments anonymously, so in certain cases, the app has morphed into a place where salacious comments, including ones targeting certain children and teens, can be posted without their consent.
The app's founders have been willing to override the app's promise of anonymity to help law enforcement identify those who make criminal threats, although they have not yet said if they will do so in this case.
"We condemn any misuse of our app and always work with local law enforcement when violent threats are made," a PR firm representing YikYak told NBC Charlotte after the incident last year.