(opinions) social media students

A student looks down at a Twitter screen, June 16, 2020.

According to Caroline Green, the threat assessment team coordinator at Virginia Tech’s police department, Virginia Tech has hired a company to scan the internet and social media for threats. The university approached the company during the 2018–19 school year.

The company, called Falcon, serves primarily as a social media management tool with the added benefit of being able to detect certain keywords that appear in conjunction with a Virginia Tech affiliate.

“The major way that we use it is to help with organizing the communication that’s going to go out,” Green said. “The other component it has is to be able to listen … So we’ll put out words like ‘gun,’ ‘assault’, ‘threats’, those sorts of things. And it listens (for) Virginia Tech, or Hokies, and that kind of thing (on the Internet).”

Those online spaces typically include the major social media sites, but Green said they can come from anywhere.

“It listens to the internet as a whole, (but) I would say that typically it’s pulling from Facebook, Twitter, sometimes Instagram … some Reddit, certain public blogs, news articles,” Green said.

However, Green made clear it only makes note of public, open posts.

“It can’t break through any sort of privacy barriers, like if someone’s account is private. It’s just what people are putting out there in the open,” Green said. “That’s what it will mainly flag for us because if there’s a safety concern, like someone’s (making) a bomb threat, (then) we need to act quickly.”

Furthermore, the police can’t typically gain access to private messages. Tony Haga, deputy chief of police and assistant director of security to the Virginia Tech police department, explains the process of obtaining such information.

“I can tell you how hard it is (to get access to private messages),” Haga said. “Private messages require me to submit a court order to the courts, and (for) them to either grant the court order or not, and then I have to send it off to the provider …. And in most cases, they have to notify the individual who’s the account holder that they’ll be releasing that information.”

Jae Sung Kim, a junior majoring in computer science, expressed that responsibility should lay with civilians to report suspicious activity, as opposed to the university monitoring it.

“I do not believe it is a school’s responsibility to constantly monitor students’ social media for threats and that the responsibility is placed on fellow students to report suspicious or threatening activity to the school,” Kim said. “And thus it is the school’s responsibility to properly assess these reports. This keeps both the student’s privacy while preventing threats and protecting the school’s student body. The school should not be constantly monitoring students’ social media for threats at all.”

Green and Haga said they largely rely on civilians reporting probable threats to the university and the community, and this is where the majority of their information comes from.

“Over the years, there’s only been a very small handful that have come through the use of that social media platform that we’re using. Most of our casework comes from our community members who see a post and report to us,” Haga said.

Haga also shared what happens when they do receive notice of a potential threat, as they have a variety of alleviation strategies and means of evaluating credibility.

“The first thing we’re going to do is look for context to see what is the meaning behind the post… If there’s a possible threat then we look at all our possible mitigation strategies, and handle it that way,” Haga said. “If it doesn’t appear to be a credible threat, then we look to see if there’s any way that we can apply a criminal process to it, because we will gladly prosecute — in the times that we can — anybody for making a threat against the university or community members.”

Safety and security for Virginia Tech students and personnel, as well as broader community members, is of the utmost importance to Virginia Tech police, according to Green.

“The whole purpose is to assist people, get them connected to resources, help protect our community and keep folks safe, and intervene and get people the help they need to be successful,” Green said.

Kim expressed that, for the most part, he trusts the university’s ability to handle threats.

“I feel relatively safe from threats at Virginia Tech, as they unfortunately had experience in responding to various threats,” Kim said. “I feel that they are much more prepared than other universities since they had to learn the hard way. I, however, am uncertain about how the university responds to threats that occur in the city of Blacksburg that are near campus because last year there was a shooting at a hookah bar right off campus and the university had a muddled response to the immediate situation.”

Haga and Green both stressed the importance of reporting potentially suspicious activity online, and encouraged anyone who sees a threat online to report it to the police or the threat assessment team.

“We rely on our community members to report suspicious people, suspicious activity, to kind of just trust our gut,” Haga said. “It’s one of those things where you witness something, you feel it may be nothing, but then we encourage people to contact us and at least give us an opportunity to take a look at the situation to see if maybe there is something that we need to get involved with pretty quickly, before it becomes a real problem.”

Green shared a range of ways that students, faculty and community members can report such activity, and they are encouraged to use whichever makes them feel most comfortable. There are several different contact numbers and email addresses on threatassessment.vt.edu, including threatassessment@vt.edu, but people can also go to the Dean of Students office or the office of Student Conduct to report any harassment or possible threats.

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