Shocked is a word that some students used to describe how they felt after receiving the “Social Media Threat” Pirate Alert just before heading to the cafeteria for lunch on Sept. 15.
According to the message from Public Safety and Security, an anonymous person issued “an implied threat” on the social media app Yik Yak, a content sharing app in which users in the same geographical area post and respond to text and pictures anonymously. The message warned people to stay away from the cafeteria at 12:25 p.m. that day or they would “regret it.”
SOPD immediately started their investigation, continuing it on campus the next morning around 8 a.m., according to Linfante. This included a bomb squad from the Essex County Sheriff’s Office sweeping the cafeteria for any potential dangers. This sweep found nothing suspicious.
As of Sept. 16, the official police investigation closed after the authorities discovered the identity of the responsible party. This person is a juvenile who does not go to Seton Hall but lives in the nearby area. The identified person was allegedly speaking of a disturbance at the institution the juvenile attends. SOPD found the anonymous user through the cooperation of Yik Yak officials.
South Orange Police Department’s Chief James Chelel said the police talked to the juvenile about the incident but did not press charges because the person was underage.
“I think the message to the students is, you can’t post anything like this on social media because the police will investigate and they do take it seriously,” Linfante said, commenting that the police have to act without knowing whether a threat is real or a joke. “And it costs a lot of money to do this. When you think about all the money spent doing this…it takes a lot of resources and energy and there’s a cost,” he said.
“You post something like this, you will get a police response,” Linfante said.
Chief Chelel agreed that posting on social media can have unintended consequences. “You have to give serious thought as to what you’re going to post out there,” he said.
Though the University’s Public Relations Department has someone monitoring social media for things like this, Patrick Linfante, assistant vice president for public safety, said that a resident student who saw the post initially notified a residence hall staff member on Sept. 14. This action resulted in Public Safety contacting the South Orange Police Department to make an official report.
“It’s something that has to be taken seriously, our obligation that everyone on campus is safe,” Chief Chelel said.
Dr. Tracy Gottlieb, vice president of student services, said, “In this hyper-media climate when bad things actually do happen, we can’t ignore anything. We need to take all perceived threats seriously and I was grateful to the entire community that they responded responsibly, maturely and cooperatively to our work.”
Edward Krayewski is a journalism professor and writer for Reason.com, a job that requires him to use social media to report on law enforcement issues. Krayewski warns that anonymity on the internet is almost impossible in today’s age. “It’s important to know that nothing is anonymous on the internet,” he said, pointing to the fact that in order to sign up for Yik Yak, you must provide a working cell phone number.
Krayewski said that many young people who grew up with the internet seem to take it for granted because they assume they are unreachable. In reality, he said, there is a way to find even anonymous social media users if pursued through the proper legal channels.
In reconciling the view that the post was simply a post with no legitimate threatening merit yet law enforcement reacted anyway, Krayewski said, “It’s not the worst thing to have an abundance of caution.”
However, he said, social media can be a tricky thing to navigate because, although caution is preferred, on the other hand, “it makes (any perceived threat on social media) more powerful, because now you know that I can tweet something and get the Police Department to respond.”
Melissa May, a professor of public relations who has experience in social media, said, “It’s part of the reality of our world today that we have to look out for these kinds of things,” in general regard to threats made over the Internet.
Noting that she is always alarmed by such campus alerts, she said that this one was particularly disturbing. “What is more disturbing is how it’s communicated and you can work up people into a mass hysteria now that people have social media,” she said.
Jake Koehler, a junior, posted his view on his Facebook account: “Nothing in this world is anonymous anymore and comments meant to hurt people or spark a reaction are not acceptable codes of behavior in any community.”
Many students said they were alarmed when they read the Pirate Alert.
“I was just in shock,” Ally Maddoch, a freshman, said of her initial reaction. “I was in class and someone who was sitting next to me was like, ‘Did you read your email?’ So I checked it immediately. I didn’t even know what to think. I got texts from my friends right away and I was trying to focus in class but I didn’t know what to do. I was really nervous about what to do—should I go to lunch, should I go back to my dorm—(but) a couple of my friends had already come and ate and they said it seemed fine.”
She said she felt reassured about eating lunch in the caf when she “was walking in and saw the police were outside, to know that they were right there.”
Some students immediately contacted their friends about the Pirate Alert.
“When I got the Pirate Alert, I sent it to our group chat immediately just to let them know, just ‘cause I was nervous,” Rob Santos, a senior, said. “I didn’t know how serious it was and it kind of worried me.”
The cautionary procedure that Public Safety and SOPD took to maintain the safety of the community alarmed some students.
“I was a little bit concerned ‘cause I didn’t really know what was going on. I looked outside (of my dorm) and I saw a dog and I saw police officers,” Justin McCann, a freshman Boland Hall resident, said. “I was confused and then I read (the alert).”
After he saw the police on campus and was refused entry to the caf during breakfast hours that morning, he said he was so hungry he needed to come to the caf to eat, though still “a little bit apprehensive” about the situation.
Similarly, Quinton Briggs, a senior, said, “When I first got the Pirate Alert, I thought maybe it was just another kid playing around. Then, I saw they had the bomb squad coming in on social media and people telling me, so that’s when I was like this is probably serious, I’m not going to the cafeteria until (it’s clear).”
Briggs, Santos and Daniel Brown, a senior, said they were sitting under Xavier waiting until 12:25 p.m. to see if other people would enter the caf.
“If nobody was in here eating, I wasn’t going to come in here,” Brown said as he was sitting at a table in the caf around 1 p.m.
Still, there were others that were not as affected by the alert.
“I didn’t see the alert but I heard people talking in class,” Emily Livaudais, a junior, said.
“It sounded serious at first when I heard people talking about it and they said it was just on Yik Yak, so I thought it might be a joke.”
Livaudais said she had not noticed a heavy police presence on campus and she did not think twice about entering the University Center that day.
Emily Balan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.