Yik Yak’s Anonymous Messaging Doesn’t Shield Students Making Threats

By Chris Marr

Dec. 11 — Several college students sending out violent threats through the anonymous Yik Yak messaging app have proven to be pranksters, but they are finding police and school officials treat the messages as neither funny nor anonymous.

About a dozen such incidents have been reported in recent months—typically involving a college student who threatened to attack fellow students with guns or bombs, only to be arrested within 24 hours or less after law enforcement and Yik Yak officials teamed up to identify the student sending the message.

Yik Yak is designed to allow users to send anonymous messages to all other users of the app within a 10-mile radius. Company policies posted on Yik Yak's website describe the procedure for law enforcement agencies to request user information in cases of emergency.

“Nothing is truly anonymous. It may look anonymous at the time that it's posted,” Ray Feldmann, a spokesman at Towson University near Baltimore, Md., told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 9. A Towson student on Oct. 1 threatened via a Yik Yak message to launch an attack that he described as “Virginia Tech part 2,” resulting in his arrest and a preliminary ban from campus after another student reported the message to school officials, Feldmann said.

Protecting Privacy, Except in Emergencies

Brooks Buffington, Yik Yak's co-founder and chief operating, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 10 that the company will “fight tooth and nail for users' privacy” in most situations, but it cooperates with law enforcement agencies who approach the company with emergencies.

Thus far, the company hasn't run into problems with law enforcement agencies requesting access to large amounts of user data, he said.

Dealing with threats is a fact of life in social media, Buffington said. “With Twitter and Facebook, they experience threats on a daily basis,” he added.

Given the recent incidents of students being arrested, Yik Yak is trying out a new function that flags posts containing keywords such as “bomb” or “kill” and gives the user a warning notification before posting the message, Buffington said. The notification reminds users of Yik Yak's policy to cooperate with law enforcement in certain situations, he said.

“Most of these are kids trying to get attention or play a prank,” he said. “So this is a way of saying, ‘Hey, are you sure you want to do this?’ ”

No Weapons Found

In the case of Towson student Matthew David Cole, police found no weapons or evidence that Cole was planning an attack, Feldmann said. “We believe it was something that was posted out of anger and frustration” over academic issues. “There was no indication that he had any intent to follow through on it,” he added.

The story is similar at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York system. A student and football player there, Jordan Crockett, was arrested, charged with a felony count of making a false bomb threat and suspended indefinitely from the football team based on a threatening post he allegedly made through Yik Yak on Nov. 4, Karl Luntta, a university spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 9.

Federal privacy laws generally prevent school officials from revealing whether college students have been suspended or expelled, but Luntta said any student making a violent threat would be subject to criminal prosecution and disciplinary action from the school.

“Whether it's made in anger or jest or with serious intent, a statement that threatens violence will not be tolerated,” he added.

At Iowa's Drake University, a student named Michael Crisp was charged with first-degree harassment after allegedly sending a Yik Yak message to threaten an attack that would “make Columbine look like child's play,” according to an Oct. 17 report from the Des Moines, Iowa, police department.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, Sgt. Jason Halifax of the Des Moines Police Department told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 9.

‘New World of Policing.’

The University of Georgia has seen threats through various social media outlets, although typically more targeted personal threats than the one sent on Sept. 19, Jimmy Williamson, chief of the university's police department told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 8. In that case, student Ariel Omar Arias was charged with two felony counts of making terroristic threats based on violent threats made targeting a specific time and place on campus.

People making threats sometimes create fake accounts on social media sites that aren't designed to be anonymous, Williamson said.

“For the most part, things can be traced,” he said. “The Internet has created a whole new world of policing from what we had 10 years ago.”

Feldmann made a similar observation about Towson University's campus policing.

“Our police department monitors Yik Yak a little more frequently than they did prior to Oct. 1,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael O. Loatman at mloatman@bna.com