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Wikipedia threats went unchecked

Times Staff Writer

Angry, offensive messages started popping up more than a year ago on the Glen A. Wilson High School page on Wikipedia, the popular user-edited online encyclopedia.

The writer, who said he was a student, hid behind an anonymous e-mail address to threaten by name Asian students at the San Gabriel Valley school, hurl racial slurs at the school’s primarily Asian badminton team and allude to possible attacks.

“I would love to see her shot right between the eyes with blood gushing out from her mouth begging for mercy as she clings onto a single shred of life,” read a message about an Asian student posted May 28, 2007. “Haha now there’s a great fantasy.”

School district officials and sheriff’s detectives did not start investigating the messages until two weeks ago, after Wikipedia staff alerted them to a violent threat posted April 16, the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting and a few days before the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

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“On Friday, April 18, 2008, there will be a shooting at this school,” the threat said, promising to target “a good majority of the badminton team and almost every single fob” -- a reference to recent Asian immigrants “fresh off the boat.”

“Take this text down,” the message warned, “and it will guarantee their death.”

On the 17th, after another threat was posted on the page, school officials canceled classes for the following day. That day investigators arrested a 15-year-old Wilson student. The student, whose name has not been released, pleaded not guilty April 22 to seven counts of making criminal threats and was being held at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall pending a psychological evaluation. His next hearing is scheduled for May 9.

As authorities investigate previous messages the student may have posted on Wikipedia and MySpace that could lead to other charges, they are considering how best to monitor the school’s 1,700 computer-savvy students and their virtual social lives.

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On Wednesday, school officials and investigators met with about 200 parents in the Wilson High School gym to discuss the threats. Parents scrawled questions on index cards, which administrators read aloud:

“Was the threat a prank?”

“Did the police know about the messages posted last year?”

“Were messages sent from a school computer? If so, why did school officials wait until after the second threat to close the school?”

Sheriff’s investigators said that after Wikipedia staff notified them of the first threat at 10:30 p.m. April 16, they assigned 13 detectives to the case and notified the six students mentioned in the threat, along with their families. They also dispatched officers to patrol outside the students’ homes.

At least one message was sent from a school computer, according to online records. But school officials had been unaware of earlier threats on the 3-year-old Wikipedia page because, like other districts, they mainly monitor school-related messages on Facebook and MySpace -- hot spots for students socializing online, said Michael Droe, the district’s chief technology officer.

Students mostly use Wikipedia for research. The school’s Wikipedia page is unofficial, created by someone who doesn’t work for the district, according to the page’s online history. Technically, it’s beyond district control. The district can ask companies or individuals to take down pages, but they rarely do, since the messages could be pranks posted by people outside the school or even the country.

Officials decided not to close school the morning after they discovered the threat and instead sent additional police to search students’ bags as they arrived.

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Among those searched, police said, was the sophomore who would later be arrested in connection with the threats.

Despite the student’s warning not to remove his April 16 threat, district officials felt it was dangerous enough to be removed, and contacted Wikipedia’s San Francisco-based staff the next morning.

The site’s nonprofit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, has a budget of $4.5 million but a tiny staff of 16 paid employees. Most Wikipedia administrators, the people who monitor the pages, are volunteers, and Wikipedia largely relies on users to alert them to “vandalism.”

A few hours after Wikipedia staff removed the student’s first threat, he had posted a second.

“You removed my last edit. I gave you a fair warning. Now the people listed in my previous edit will be victims in the Glen A. Wilson Shooting to occur this Friday,” he wrote. “Be prepared to have 33 families mourn the loss of their children and place a lawsuit upon your shoulders.”

Again, the district asked Wikipedia staff to remove the message, and they complied, even placing a block on the page that bars postings from unidentified e-mail addresses.

Investigators would not tell parents at the meeting last week whether the arrested student was planning to attack the school, or what they found during a search of the student’s home. They said the “A” student, an only child with cousins at the high school, had never been arrested before, cooperated with them and made a full confession.

Messages posted from the same e-mail address defended the writing as free speech.

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“I write what I write on Wikipedia because it’s open to all people to contribute,” read a May 2007 posting. “Don’t read what you don’t want to see. You could have stopped reading this long ago but yet, you still continue to read.”

Some parents thought the school should have detected the threats earlier; others blamed Wikipedia for not reporting or taking them down sooner.

“Places like Wikipedia that are public have some responsibility, whether they were joking around or not -- there’s a responsibility for public safety,” said Cindy Greenup, the mother of a Wilson freshman.

Parents and students cannot be expected to police the sites alone, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Det. Dan Jackson.

“How do you make them accountable for policing it? It’s pretty much impossible,” he said. “Somebody with authority, like the administrator, should be monitoring it” and reporting threats to police, because “we certainly can’t cruise the Internet on thousands of sites.”

But some Internet experts say volunteers like those at Wikipedia can’t be expected to be that hyper-vigilant.

“The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were not written with the idea of Wikipedia in mind, and so we have to make this stuff up as we go along,” said Peter Lunenfeld, a professor in the media design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Lunenfeld said parents needed to be the ultimate online watchdogs.

A quick response to school Internet threats often depends on getting parents, students and site administrators to immediately report them to authorities, said Michael Bowman, Los Angeles school police deputy chief, who is called to investigate such threats about every other month.

Online records show that for more than a year Wikipedia administrators and at least one student were removing messages from the Wilson High page that had been posted by the same e-mail address as the recent threats. But the student who removed the messages never notified school officials.

“At first I thought it was just some hate letter, but as much of them surfaced, I started to question the motives of the poster,” the student, a senior who plans to become a computer science major, wrote in an e-mail last week.

On Monday, he and others who have been monitoring the page were still debating in the “discussion” area whether the page history should include references to the shooting threats.

Wikipedia staff members said they did their best to respond to potential threats, but that it was difficult to separate them from pranks.

“If someone came to us and told us we think there are threats here, we think there’s a risk, we would go to the authorities,” said Jay Walsh, a Wikimedia spokesman. But we’re “not hugely equipped to trace people and see what they’re doing.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@ latimes.com


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