Yiks, Yaks and Threats, Oh My!

Just a few weeks ago, Christopher Harper-Mercer posted on 4chan.org, “Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the Northwest” because he was planning on carrying out a small-scale, big-impact shooting at Umpqua Community College the very next day .  Less than 24 hours after posting this warning, Harper-Mercer made Oregon history as he strolled into an English class armed with a bulletproof jacket, six loaded guns and extra ammo.

The website he posted to is similar to the app Yik Yak, as it allows anonymous users to post images and short messages on something like an online bulletin board.

This tragedy matches those of Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook in terms of its devastation and infuriation on the behalf of pro-gun control activists. But there is one stark difference. He pretty much told people he was going to do it.

In hindsight, this event and its warning signs beg the question: how much should we trust social media?

On the one hand, anyone can say anything he or she wants when he or she’s hiding behind a computer screen. On the other hand, he or she may not be pretending, so we cannot just ignore what we think might be an empty threat. In Emily Sakamoto’s case, we will never know if she was serious or not when she threatened to shoot up Emory’s Oxford campus last week. On Oct. 11, Sakamoto uploaded this message to Yik Yak: “I’m shooting up the school. Tomorrow. Stay in your rooms. The ones on the quad are the ones who will go first.”

Yik Yak is an anonymous social media platform that is popular among college students and offers its users a local feed of posts. The app deleted the post almost immediately, but by then many students saw it and alerted the police, who traced the post back to Sakamoto and arrested her in her room. However, the post was published early Sunday morning, and she was arrested Sunday night. The time gap gave her the entire day to execute her calculated and articulated plan. Obviously and luckily, nobody at Oxford died that day. This was probably a huge relief for Yik Yak, since the app’s administrators had deleted what would serve as a quazi-warning to steer clear of an armed individual on the quad. Did they even think of taking any action? Did they just ignore the post once it was deleted from the cyber sphere? Maybe deleting it was a good call in order to avoid absolute panic, but this panic could have also been avoided with a police report. What if Sakamoto’s threat was genuine and she did have a gun, and no one took her seriously?

We read offensive comments online all the time and don’t think twice about them; we just laugh, or we cringe and then carry on with our lives. But when Sakamoto made her comments, did we laugh, cringe or run for cover? Maybe, it was just a joke or a bluff. But maybe she was completely serious, and everyone at Oxford was right to be terrified. The thing about social media is that we will never know what users actually mean because we can’t hear or see them. If someone stood up on the McDonough stage with a loaded AK-47 and said Sakamoto’s words, people would know enough to really panic. However, social media, especially Yik Yak, removes the transparency of her message, thus making it difficult to react in the first place.

The Internet, even with all of its benefits, is a scary place for people in Sakamoto’s wake. She can post her threat and then carry it out five seconds later. The Internet allows, and almost welcomes, immediate action because social media is instantaneous.

Words used to just be words, but now they are a lot more than that. The power of the pen plus the immediacy of the Internet can make for a dangerous combination, but in this “Digital Age,” it’s the new reality.

Jessica Cherner is a College senior from Bethesda, Maryland.