Open Mike from Pres Schill on rumor control

Colleagues,
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. Schill
President and Professor of Law
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16 Responses to Open Mike from Pres Schill on rumor control

  1. Darby says:

    “I truly appreciate all that you do to serve the UO and our students every day.”

    Yeah? Really?

    Then prove it, show it, by having your representatives on the contract bargaining teamS (all of them) bring cost of living increases that reflects past and current lost wages to inflation; pay *all* insurance premiums; raise classifications ceilings/add steps to the top. And, heck, bargain in good faith!

    • Scratching my head says:

      Ooooh, don’t hurt Mike’s feelings by suggesting the admin isn’t bargaining in good faith. He seems to be very thin-skinned. Who is he implying said that administrators were “driven by malevolent or self-serving motives”? Was that a general slam, or did it refer specifically to the false alarm of the past weekend?

    • Dumpster Fire says:

      I don’t know if this was your intent Darby, but it sounds like you’re saying that the only way the administration can bargain in good faith is to give you everything you want (and feel you deserve).

      • HaHaHa says:

        That’s what SEIU always thinks “good faith” is.

      • Scratching my head says:

        Darby may have been referring to the bad-faith bargaining with the GTFF that maneuvered the two parties into mediation by deliberate foot-dragging and for the sole purpose of preventing a strike in the spring term

      • Darby says:

        Dumpster Fire: the bargaining is and has been constantly all about take-aways. Every damn time.

  2. Concerned Denizen says:

    Great plug for the Faculty Club, down in the bullet points. Come on down, everyone, and get the scoop(s)!

  3. Hart says:

    Colleague Mike,

    Trust is a thing one earns, and one does so by building a culture in which trust is rewarded with honesty and transparency, a culture which can only be built top-down. I don’t think anyone here will be upset if you set about building that culture. Wee hint: sending out an email chastising the community for caring too much about everyone getting the warning is not how.

    Also, stop, just stop, suggesting it was irresponsible of students to spread this kind of information. The kids in college today have enjoyed active shooter drills and lockdowns (which are so common that my kids stopped even bothering to mention when they had happened in their schools; I usually found out from the local evening news) their entire academic lives. They don’t even know how to doubt that a threat could be true, and they have always know that if their friends don’t hear the news, they could die. Of course they shared far and wide. Anyone who interacts with them should have known that a far-and-wide (and deep) response was necessary from the outset, and that your team apparently didn’t understand that is worth fixing.

    • Not a JH fan says:

      Thank you Hart. To watch students struggle to negotiate their lives last week broke my heart. Several told me “we didn’t want hear the same story: ‘the person wrote all this stuff on social media but no one paid attention and look what happened.’ “

      • Dog says:

        absolutely not true that no one paid attention

        his family paid immediate attention and quickly got that person
        the care that they needed

        • Hart says:

          Right, but the point being made was that students, not having that information, wanted to make sure they were not at the vortex of that same story: lots of people saw, but didn’t tell others. Which is why they were spreading the story. This can be true at the same time as the point you are making, which is that someone was doing something.

      • Deplorable Duck says:

        You were heart-broken by the difficulties of the students who were passing around rumors, crying wolf at an obviously not-dangerous situation, and who outed the actual victim in the situation, who will now wear it in public for years? Seriously?

    • Shaking my head says:

      Hart’s point is very well taken. Students have every reason to be reactive and circumspect, and many were genuinely spooked (I had 35% attendance on Monday in a class with normally 90%+ attendance). Tone deaf open mikes aren’t helpful and they make the president sound quite whiny

  4. Dog says:

    Two things about this incident:

    1) I know the student that seemed to initiate what went viral and so I am aware of the various time sequences. I also know several students that were part of the affect social media communities.

    2) As far as I know, none of the current term instructors for this student were notified that the student had been secured on Sunday – one of these instructors cancelled class that Monday and another one was very confused by the whole affair and why the UO didn’t notify them. In my view, the fact that the UO didn’t notify key people on Sunday night is egregious.

  5. Publius says:

    “DOES THIS APPLY TO ADMINISTRATORS TOO? ”

    Pres Schill: “Do not spread rumors. We all have a responsibility to know what we are talking about and be informed before we speak or post … And let’s stand up against those in our community who spread innuendo and seek to undermine trust with falsehoods.”

    During the controversies over sexual assault/harassment, administrators publicly attacked faculty and others based solely on rumors, when based on anything at all. I assume Pres Schill has turned over a new leaf on this as well.

  6. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    “kibitzing at the faculty club” is comparable to rumors about a possible shooting on campus?

    Come on.

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