Open Mike: Misinformation can harm

May 17, 2019


I am the first person to admit that I am not an expert when it comes to social media and the way that information is consumed, created, and shared in our digital-first world. I like to follow friends on Facebook and I fully appreciate that Instagram and Snapchat are among the preferred communications channels of many University of Oregon students, but I am not personally active on social media. In so many ways our society and lives are better for the speed, power, and access that comes from living in the digital age, but there are times when it also comes at a cost. Over the last weekend, we experienced one such moment at the UO, when the rapid circulation of misinformation on social media unnecessarily created a problem—or the perception of a problem—on our campus. 

Early Saturday morning, a member of the UO community—a person in the midst of a mental health crisis according to family members—posted on social media some things that rightfully caused concern. The original posts did not threaten the campus, threaten physical harm to an individual or forewarn a shooting. Still, the posting was of such a nature that it did catch the eye of the University of Oregon Police Department, which leapt into action. Within about 12 hours, UOPD officers had humanely contacted the individual and helped the person seek appropriate care. As the family noted on Monday, the individual is “under secure care this week.” I want to thank and acknowledge UOPD for the way officers handled a very sensitive situation. It was superb. They recognized a member of the community in need, responded empathetically, delivered support, and ensured campus safety. They do it every day in ways both big and small, and most of us never know it.

The fact is that UOPD had already successfully addressed the situation before it started to spread on social media Saturday. It is not completely clear whether the rumor machine started by word-of-mouth or online, but campus community members were posting pictures of the individual on social media with the message that, according to one post that was widely shared, the person “was allegedly planning a shooting on Monday” on the UO campus. That allegation was baseless and not part of the individual’s original social media post, but the viral nature of spreading social media fear had a resonating impact across campus. Students groups saw the posts and cancelled meetings. Faculty members, deans and staffers wondered whether they needed to do anything within their units: Were classes going to be cancelled Monday? Should we lock classroom doors?

The university activated our UO Alerts system—usually reserved for extremely urgent public safety messages—on Sunday to let campus know that there was no threat and that campus operations were not going to be interrupted. It is not often that you have to resort to using crisis communications tools to let people know there is no crisis. In fact, sending the message at some level seemed to only heighten the tension. People who had not been aware of the issue, suddenly became worried. Even after we sent the UO Alerts texts and emails trying to allay concerns, we learned that some people did not trust the message from UOPD. Calls and viral social media sharing of the incorrect information did not drop off. We felt it necessary to use the alerts system again on Monday to deliver a message from the individual’s family that the person was receiving care and reiterating that the original messages did not contain the language or threats alleged by others.

We are asking ourselves a lot of questions after-the-fact. Could we have somehow stopped the rumor mill before it got out of control? Maybe, but I am honestly not sure how. As a society, we are seeing this phenomena play out much more frequently. This was the first time we have had to deal with something like this at the UO since I arrived. Was it appropriate to use a mass communication tool to respond to an internet rumor? I think, yes, in this instance, but it comes at a cost. Could our messaging have been clearer? Perhaps; it is possible that we shared too little in our first message. We had a team of law enforcement, communications, and legal experts working diligently and very quickly to balance the public’s right to know with an individual’s right to privacy. That is a very difficult, sometimes impossible, task. In fact, it really is the crux of the challenge we face in these types of situations.

So, what are the take-aways from this Open Mike? For me, it boils down to a few things:

  • Do not spread rumors. We all have a responsibility to know what we are talking about and be informed before we speak or post. That is true whether we are sharing something on social media, talking with a student in our office, kibitzing at the faculty club, or commenting on an online forum. Remember, words have consequences.
  • Take appropriate action. Immediately and directly share information or concerns about a possible threat to the community. Do not simply share on social media. Call 9-1-1, or contact police at non-emergency numbers: UOPD 541-346-2919; Eugene Police 541-682-5111. If you are concerned about a student and it is a non-emergency, complete a report to the Office of the Dean of Students
  • Transparency is the best policy. Whenever possible administrators should be as forthcoming as possible, subject to the privacy rights of members of our community.
  • Let's learn to trust. I get it, we have all become desensitized to being lied to by leaders and institutions we are supposed to trust. It is a sad commentary on our national political climate that we are not shocked by it anymore. However, universities are communities of scholars, and academic communities are built on trust with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in. Skepticism is a good thing in moderation, but let’s stop assuming that our colleagues—even those who are administrators—are driven by malevolent or self-serving motives. And let’s stand up against those in our community who spread innuendo and seek to undermine trust with falsehoods.    

I truly appreciate all that you do to serve the UO and our students every day. It is an incredible honor to be your president. Thank you for indulging another one of my Open Mikes.

Michael H. SchillPresident and Professor of Law