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YikYak's revival at UNL comes with criminal investigation into threat, court records show

YikYak's revival at UNL comes with criminal investigation into threat, court records show

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LINCOLN -- YikYak, the once-popular social media app that allows users to engage in anonymous discourse with others within a 5-mile radius, has reemerged as an engaging pastime for students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The app, which peaked in popularity in the early 2010s before shutting down in 2017, went live again in August after a four-year stint of inactivity. YikYak's popularity has surged in Lincoln in the months since, drawing hundreds of posts a day as users share short messages and seek "upvotes" from their peers.

At least part of the app's draw appears to be linked to its promised anonymity and constantly evolving discourse. Last Friday afternoon, much of the conversation revolved around a rumor that a fraternity member won the recent Powerball jackpot, while one user confessed to using the prescription ADHD medication Adderall before a science test in a post that may or may not have been a joke.

But at least one UNL student has learned the hard way that the curtain of anonymity on YikYak extends only so far.

According to a search warrant filed in Lancaster County District Court, a freshman at the university is under investigation for allegedly making terroristic threats on the app.

YikYak moderators alerted the UNL Police Department on Sept. 6 of a threatening post the student made, according to the court filing. The tip came only a few weeks after the app reappeared on Apple's App Store.

In the series of posts to the local message board, the student seemed to take aim at UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, who at the time was facing intense criticism from student activists at the university protesting the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.

"Just planted a 2nd B0mb the chancellors office!!! #HesMyChancellor," the student wrote on Aug. 31, according to the affidavit.

The student had made about 10 previous threatening posts on YikYak referring to Green's "assassination," according to the warrant.

"360 no scope the Chancellor," one of the posts read, according to the affidavit. The phrase originated in reference to first-person shooter video games and has become a meme of sorts in the years since.

Along with an investigation, the posts prompted a warning from Assistant University Police Chief Marty Fehringer:

"Don't post anything that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the paper with your name associated with it," Fehringer told the Journal Star on Oct. 7, quoting advice he received as a young police officer and that he hopes to share with UNL students as one of them is investigated for an apparent joke that could net a felony charge.

"That's a good life lesson to have in a lot of areas," he continued. "Don't do anything in your life that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper."

The student told police that the posts were intended to net laughs and upvotes on YikYak, according to the affidavit. He consented to a digital download of his phone's contents, where police found that he told a group of his friends that he'd been banned from the app for making too many "sus posts" — slang for suspect or alarming — according to the warrant.

It's unclear if the student will actually be charged with a crime. Fehringer declined to comment directly on the case, instead speaking in generalities about what the app's prominent role on campus means for the Police Department — and for the students who use it.

Fehringer said UNL police don't monitor the app — or any social media channels — with any degree of regularity, in part because staff levels don't allow for it. He said they investigate threats and internet-based concerns only when they're first reported to the department. 

After YikYak reported the freshman's reference to a second bomb in Green's office, an investigator searched the phone number affiliated with the account in UNL's system, according to the affidavit, quickly identifying the student before using UNL's NCard access system and campus security cameras to determine where the student was when he made the post. 

The affidavit provides a window of insight into how seriously campus police are investigating the threat, though it's not clear if students realize the level of scrutiny their YikYak posts might come under. Fehringer said this investigation might serve as a warning.

"There's consequences for behaviors in life," he said. "I mean, that's just a fact of life. And so, trying to understand that ahead of time so you don't make mistakes I think is huge."

Part of the reason YikYak shut down in 2017 — along with a decline in user engagement — was growing criticism surrounding the platform's often-toxic discourse, one that featured bomb threats that prompted school evacuations.

As YikYak has reemerged to the tune of instant re-popularity at UNL, it seems some of the problems that led to the site's original demise have resurfaced, too.

"I hadn't even heard of it," Fehringer said. "But in talking to people, I've been told that it was around for a while, and then it fell out of favor. And now it's back — at least for a period of time."

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