Practical joker or lone wolf?

How seriously should we take Internet threats?

By Petra Meijer

The 21-year-old student who posted two messages threatening a shooting at Leiden University on 4chan.com last week has confessed. How do we know whether we’re dealing with a potential school shooter or a practical joker? “In over 99.99 per cent of the cases, internet threats are not serious.”

Tomorrow at 10:05 I will open fire at the university of Leiden. Not gonna tell you which faculty, that’s up to you to guess. Shit’s gonna go down, then I’m gonna go down. Going for the highscore. Only counts if suicide you cancerous fucks, get it right.
Those are the words of a 21-year-old student from Valkenburg who threatened a shooting “somewhere at Leiden University”, posted last week on the internet forum 4chan. After they had been reported, police in bullet-proof vests were dispatched to various faculties.
A second threat followed later the same day on 4chan: Yesterday was a test, to get some parameters. Normies, get ready to fuckin drop :^)
The student was arrested on Tuesday night at student fraternity Catena and has been questioned and set free, following his confession. It is not yet known when his case will come up.
It’s not the first time an educational institute in Leiden has been threatened via the 4chan forum. Eighteen months ago, all Leiden secondary schools and upper secondary vocational colleges remained closed for a day when someone threatened to shoot a teacher. A man was apprehended for sending one of the messages “as a joke”. He was sentenced to 150 hours of community punishment.
“In over 99.99 per cent of the cases, internet threats are not serious”, claims PhD student Jelle van Buuren, who is researching so-called “lone wolves”. “If you look at how often people say on the internet that they’ll shoot or stab someone and compare that to crime statistics, you’ll see two entirely different things. Every year in May, around the time of the school finals, there’s a rise in the number of threats to schools and teachers. If all the threats to burn down schools were actually carried out, there wouldn’t be any schools left in the Netherlands.”
But how can we tell when they are serious? Bart Schermer, a senior lecturer at the Law Faculty is conducting a study into internet regulations and internet governance. “The police use special software and there are social media monitoring systems like OBI4wan and Coosto. If someone creates a threatening atmosphere, those systems can pick it up.” In addition, the police use iColumbo, a service that collects and analyses relevant information using keywords.
According to Van Buuren, these “smart machines” make a first selection and analysis, but the finals assessments are done by humans. “Analysts trained specially for the job: they see if they can trace the sender quickly and what type of person that is, bearing in mind: the vaguer the contents, the less danger. But if the message states times, specific locations, objects or weapons, they will investigate it more thoroughly.”
Schermer continues: “There’s a difference between a tweet announcing that you will kill the Prime Minister or message to a friend after you have lost at a computer game saying that you’ll slay him next time. But we should always consider whether the suspicion is worth the violation of privacy. It doesn’t seem very wrong to monitor keywords, but how do we feel about the government constantly watching us? How long do they store the messages? These are fundamental issues.”
Using iRN, the Internet Research Network, the police can watch our internet activities anonymously. Van Buuren explains: “4chan truly is the gutter of the internet. It’s where child pornography is traded and all sorts of obscure deals are arranged. Just because a threat was posted on 4chan doesn’t mean to say that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s crucial to assess each message individually.”
So why did the police in Leiden decide to take action? Van Buuren says: “Probably the police received another threat besides the one on 4chan, perhaps via a direct email. We call that a double warning.” In addition, the text contained elements that we often see with school shooters: the desire for eternal fame and the threat of suicide after the shooting, for instance. As they were combined with a specific time, the police probably decided not to clear the building but to send extra security.”
Van Buuren thinks the decision to continue with the lectures a wise one. “The police and the government often act on the grounds that it’s better safe than sorry. Understandable but it has a downside: firstly, there’s a risk of copycats. But if you overreact, you’ll disrupt society because some spotty adolescent posted a threat.” In his view, the memory of recent, similar incidents is often something to be considered. “There’d been a shooting at a school in America just a week before the threats in Leiden, while we always think: ‘It won’t happen here.’”
Something along those lines occurred Rotterdam last month, when a 16-year-old fare dodger jumped on the Thalys trains and locked himself in the toilet. The train was evacuated and nine platforms were closed off. “The failed attack in the Thalys train was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Trained analysts are aware of these pitfalls.”
But are there any cases in which the authorities have had to say “sorry” instead of playing it safe? “That’s hard to say”, admits Van Buuren. “In hindsight, you see everything in the light of the incident. If you ask around after a murder, the neighbours say ‘I always thought he was a bit odd.’ But think of Elliot Rodgers in America, who really hated women. He uploaded videos to YouTube and the threat of violence was very obvious. The police were even warned by his mother so they paid him a visit. But he was very courteous to the officers. Two days later, he shot six people and then killed himself.”
As Van Buuren says, there is no single profile of the “lone wolf “and that’s why it’s hard to distinguish them from jokers. “Some have mental problems, or they’re frustrated with their lives and society. But so are very many people and they don’t do anything. It’s actually a combination of factors.”
Van Buuren adds: “It’s great that the students just carried on as usual and didn’t feel frightened by the cars patrolling the streets. It’s a lovely example our strong, down-to-earth society.”

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