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No Kidding! Nothing Funny About Dangerous Pranks

by on October 15, 2014 6:15 AM

Back when I was a cub reporter at a small-town paper I pulled a plum assignment: I was to accompany a local service organization on its mission to build a dental clinic in Baja California.

I wasn't all that excited about hanging out for the better part of a week with the mayor, the superintendent of schools and other local luminaries. On the other hand: free trip to Mexico!

We traveled by chartered tour bus. The pillars of the community generally behaved like middle-schoolers on a field trip, rushing to the windows to gawk when an attractive woman zoomed past in a convertible, blonde hair streaming.

Still, the poobahs nobly built their clinic, and before they had driven home the last nail a line of grateful toothache sufferers had formed. It was a good story and as a bonus I discovered the pleasure of fish tacos, which I love to this day.

Then came the return trip. Feeling a little cocky, perhaps, after their good deeds in Mexico, the mayor, of all people, boasted at the border about the drugs he and his cronies had acquired during their Baja jaunt.

You can guess what happened next: The customs officials and their dogs spent the next three hours verifying that the mayor had in fact been joking. What a funny guy!

*

Long before Hurricane Sandusky flattened Happy Valley, a Pennsylvania "radio personality" reported the death of Joe Paterno. It was April 1. I got a call from a reporter asking me, as a journalism ethics guy, to weigh in.

Not cool, I declared. You don't send Paterno's legion of passionate admirers into paroxysms of grief for the sake of an April Fool's joke.

More recently, I heard about a friend of a friend who practically got turned inside out by the Transportation Security Administration after joking about a bomb in his backpack as he went through airport security. Such a kidder! May he get yanked out of line and searched from stem to stern for the rest of his natural life.

*

I thought of these stories over the weekend when I got the message that Penn State police were looking into a bomb threat on campus. About 18 minutes later came a correction:

"The threat received by police today did NOT involve a bomb threat."

Whew.

"Police have received word of a shooting threat at HUB."

Uh-oh.

The threat was posted Saturday night on Yik Yak, a phone app that enables users within a 1.5-mile radius to exchange anonymous messages. The poster threatened to "kill everyone in the hub" at noon Monday.

Next came an update: "Penn State Police remain vigilant in wake of threat." Made me feel much safer.

A couple of hours later, a vigilant student, perhaps genuinely frightened, perhaps merely hopeful, asked me if I was going to cancel our Monday morning class. I told him to expect business-as-usual unless the cops advise otherwise.

Instead, the cops told us the threat was past. With the help of the folks who run Yik Yak, they had tracked down the author of the scary message and placed him under arrest. Now I was impressed. That was quick work.

*

I'd never heard of Yik Yak before this week. Now I see that similar anonymous posts are making mischief all over.

According to a Huffington Post story published a week ago, Yik Yak has been the source of racist posts at Colgate University and threats of sexual violence against women at Kenyon College. Also last week, the Washington Post reported that a Towson University freshman had threatened a "Virginia Tech Part 2" and that Emory University's student government had denounced Yik Yak as "a platform for hate speech or harassment."

The HuffPost piece called on universities to ban Yik Yak and other anonymous forums. Yik Yak has already erected "geofences" to prevent cyber-bullying at middle schools and high schools.

Presumably, malicious posts were not what the creators of Yik Yak had in mind. Consider these sample messages from Yik Yak's website:

  • The squirrels on campus have more confidence in approaching people than I do.
  • "No makeup exams." Thank god, I'm a guy and don't know a thing about makeup.
  • Just got my calc midterm back...only need a 132% on the final to make a B.
  • It's 2014 already, why don't the Pringles cans have the same spinny thing that's on the bottom of deodorant yet?
  • Thought I woke up to a huge clap of thunder, and then I realized that my roommate just fell out of his loft.

The composer of the HUB shooting threat, identified as Jong Seong Shim, 20, told police his threat was a prank. Hilarious.

Take heed, ye merry pranksters: Add social media to the list of venues, along with international borders, radio stations and airports, where you might want to resist the impulse to joke about drugs, weapons, violence or death.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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