Joke or threat? That’s the question raised by an Arizona high school student’s ill-advised, reckless, fooolish Snapchat post showing a crowded hallway in the Sierra Linda High School in Phoenix. The male student captioned his photo “Planning the school shooting,” followed by three smiley faces.
A 16-year-old student in Northglenn High School in Colorado named Kaylee saw the photo in her Snapchat app. As she later told reporters, “It freaked me out.”
Kaylee saved a screenshot of the message and then texted her mother about what she should do. The response was perfect: “Do not pass go, go directly to the office. You need to tell somebody.” Kaylee took the message to the Northglenn school resource officer.
In a somewhat futile gesture aimed at demonstrating that Snapchat is not all about sexting, the company from the start has implemented a notification system that alerts users if someone has taken a screenshot of the content they share. That feature has done nothing to prevent massive numbers of nude Snapchat photos from being captured and shared online, and creative (or highly-motivated) Snapchat users have figured out a number of methods for saving photos without notifying the poster.
In this case, however, the young man who posted the photo was notified when Kaylee took her screen shot and he messaged her not long afterwards. During the course of the conversation, he told Kaylee that he was a student at Sierra Linda HS.
The information, including the photo, was passed on to authorities in Phoenix. They identified the male student (probably by asking Snapchat to identify the sender by his username and cell phone number) and arrested him on one count of felony hoax. If convicted, he could face between 30 and 45 months in prison.
This incident offers a number of important lessons for parents to consider and discuss with their children:
- With the 14th anniversary of 9/11 looming and in the wake of so many school shootings over the past few years, it is important to help kids understand that there are some “jokes” that are no longer funny (if they ever were in the first place). What has changed, of course, is that increasingly students face possible criminal charges when they post this type of material.
- Thanks to the global nature of the Internet, the whistle can be blown on criminal stupidity anywhere in the world, and distance is no impediment to swift investigation. Kaylee read the Snapchat message 800-odd miles from the location where it was posted. Once a decision was made to investigate the possible threat, the sender was tracked down and arrested within a few hours. Law enforcement agencies are already highly efficient at conducting these types of investigations, and they are only going to get better.
- The mantra of “If you see something, say something” is steadily sinking into our national consciousness (thanks to aggressive campaigns by agencies like U.S. Homeland Security or the New York City MTA). In many ways, it resembles the campaign during World War II to remind both soldiers and civilians that “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” (That catchy slogan was recently updated by the Air Force to the much less mellifluous “Loose Tweets Destroy Fleets.”)
- As more and more people grow familiar with the expression and accept the premise that we are all responsible for each other’s safety, it will be increasingly common for kids to be “grassed up” (as my British friends say) by their peers. As Kaylee so eloquently put it,
I didn’t want to assume it was a joke because if I would have woken up today and seen that he really did shoot up a school, I know how bad I would have felt if I know I could possibly have stopped it.
I think (and hope) that will become an increasingly common sentiment.
It is terrific that a young woman happened to see the post and felt she needed to do something about it. Fortunately, it does not seem like this was an instance of a serious threat being posted to social media. But what if it had been serious and no one reported it?
That question is driving considerable research into the possibility of using software to monitor and analyze social media for potential threats. But figuring out how to write software to effectively monitor social media and identify potential problems is enormously challenging. There’s the sheer volume of material, there are the numerous privacy concerns, and of course, there is the challenge of properly understanding the meaning of a given tweet. For instance, can you tell at a glance whether a tweet reading “Looking forward to shooting stars” was posted by an astronomer, a red carpet photographer, or an embittered former child star looking to avenge years of failed screen tests and increasingly demeaning commercials? Probably not. But shouldn’t a social media service like Snapchat have a mechanism in place to at least flag the message as deserving additional inspection? It’s a conversation worth having.
It’s important to remember, too, that while the challenges to timely and accurate monitoring of social media by software are immense, they are superable, and probably sooner than we realize (or would like). As with other instances where software will be making decisions about our behavior (assessing our operation of vehicles, for instance), we need to put social and legal structures in place to make sure that the analyses and resulting decisions are reached in an egalitarian and transparent fashion.