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Dec 2012
Be careful on social media, experts warn

It's easy to vent on social media, but not thinking about the post, can bring serious consequences.

Comments can have different meanings to different people, media experts say.

That seemed to be the case this week with Kyla Bangayan.

Los Angeles Police Department officers arrested the 24-year-old Cal Poly Pomona student at his parent's Hollywood home Sunday on suspicion of making violent threats to schools on Facebook. However, on Monday, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office determined it would not file charges against him.

Prosecutors reviewed the case and decided not to file charges because "there is no reference to threatening action toward any specific victim or school, which is required in the elements" of the penal code section under which Bengayan was arrested, according to the District Attorney's Office charge evaluation worksheet.

Police officers learned about Bangayan after someone saw his comments on Facebook, said Jeana Franco, detective with the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division.

The person notified police officers and showed them the comments on Bangayan's Facebook page, Franco said.

Investigators took the case Sunday.

"We had enough to arrest him and felt it was important to arrest him at that time," Franco said.

Police officers took the comments seriously.

"We thought that was credible," Franco said.

At Bangayan's parent's home, police officers found nine firearms, according to the Police Department.

Bangayan posted three Facebook comments shortly after Friday's Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, the worksheet said. In that case, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 people at the school, including 20 children.

Bangayan wrote that if people didn't stop posting about the shootings on Facebook he would do the same, according to the worksheet.

In addition, he said that many children die in Third World countries every day.

Bangayan told police investigators that he posted the comments as a joke and got some laughs from his friends, according to the worksheet.

"Regardless of what happened in Connecticut, he would have been taken into custody," Franco said.

Franco said she thinks "the shock value" of what Bangayan posted increased because of the Connecticut shootings.

As a result of the arrest, Bangayan is "going to be more careful. We're aware of him," Franco said.

Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, people should be "more mindful of social media and be more responsible," she said.

Although Bangayan is out of police custody, Franco said "he's on a mental hold" and is being evaluated at a Los Angeles area hospital. The psychological evaluation is a precaution.

"We're just trying to ensure public safety," she said.

Michael Epstein, a professor and media law scholar at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said comments made via social media are like spoken comments

"Whatever you post, you are making an utterance," Epstein said. "What you post can come back to bite you in a way."

The fact something is said on Facebook has less to do than what is said, Epstein said.

Someone can post something on Facebook or some other form of social media and be read by friends.

"Maybe they know the poster has a dark sense of humor, or is a curmudgeon ... or is provocative," Epstein said.

Those familiar with the person posting the comments may take the author of the post to task, but the comments can lose context online particularly when read by people unfamiliar with the author.

The same comment can be changed around or picked up and used in a different context that changes the meaning, Epstein said.

So a post can be read by someone else - including members of law enforcement - and the post will have a different meaning, he said.

"Facebook is not for the impulsive," Epstein said.

"People think of Facebook as an intimate medium but it's anything but," he said. "It's a public soapbox."

Legal experts said the comments that Bangayan made caught law enforcement's attention but weren't specific enough to charge him.

Bangayan's comments were vague, part of a comment about what was being discussed via social media and was protected speech under the First Amendment, said Jonathan Kotler, a media lawyer and associate professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The comments didn't reach the level of a criminal threat, Kotler said.

However, had the comments been specific, involved a particular school, and provided details about who the victims would be, it would change things, Kotler said.

"Then you have a real threat," he said.

Bangayan has attracted law enforcements attention.

"Is he going to be watched henceforth? Yes, he is," Kotler said.

Fifteen years ago, such comments probably would have been made when someone vented during a card game with friends or at a bar over a drink and would not have amounted to much, Kotler said.

Now the comments are made on social media.

"Last week's event really shook everyone, as it should," Kotler said.

Under such circumstances, law enforcement agencies are going to be cautious.

"I can't really fault the police," he said. "They're being conservative."

Kotler said he thinks the students should not have been arrested, "but given what happened in Connecticut, it's understandable."

Epstein suggests that people always using caution when using email or social media.

"People who you don't know will be reading this comment," he said.



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