Internet creates 'echo chamber' of campus threats, experts say

'It feels very possible that someone may come and do violence on a university campus'

Online threats against universities are coming from an "echo chamber," social media experts told Canadian Press's Nicole Thompson.

Threats against Wilfrid Laurier University and McMaster University were posted to the Internet on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The message to Wilfrid Laurier led to a campus lockdown for about six hours, while McMaster increased campus security.

The Laurier threat was deemed credible by police because of its similarity to the warning that came just before the Umpqua Community College attack.

The Laurier threat was posted to online forum 4Chan. It included a cartoon frog holding a gun and said "Don't go to laurier science building hall tomorrow. happening threat will be posted in the morning."  

The warning before the Umpqua attack also was on 4Chan, had the same image, and also read "Don't go to school if you are in the northwest. happening thread will be posted tomorrow morning."

Just one week after that attack, another 4Chan warning put Philadelphia-area colleges on high alert as well.

"We're in a cultural moment now where it feels very possible that someone may come and do violence on a university campus," says Aimee Morrison, a University of Waterloo professor who specializes in digital communication.

Even if the threats are empty, "it does in fact inspire real terror," she says.

And 4Chan's culture of one-upping other users breeds more—and darker—threats, Morrison says.

But the people who post them may face real legal consequences. A 22-year-old student in London was charged with posting the threat against Laurier, if convicted, faces up to nearly $10,000 in fines and six months in prison.

McMaster's local police department traced that threat to a 16-year-old boy in Canada, where issuing threats can result in a $5,000 fine or two years in prison (Thompson, Canadian Press/Globe and Mail, 10/18).

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