***Trigger warning: Gun violence, school shootings, sexual assault
One of the most common forms of social interaction seen today is communication through anonymous smart-phone applications and the internet. The proliferation of web-based anonymous forums throughout the world has highlighted both positive and negative aspects of anonymous social interaction. In many ways, anonymity can serve as protection from traditional social and institutional structures that prevent marginalized groups from participating in mainstream conversation. For example, individuals within an authoritarian context may utilize anonymity online to express dissent and organize collective action, such as was the case during the Arab Spring of 2010. However, anonymity online also has considerable negative effects. Most notably, anonymity prevents users from being accountable to their words or their actions. Since the development of online anonymous forums and applications such as Yik Yak and Whisper, bomb and shooting threats at schools have caused panic in many communities, kids at schools have gotten publicly ridiculed by anonymous bullies, and individuals and groups have been publicly hacked and shamed. Clearly, the social issues that are the root of these events have existed pre-internet and new media. However, the easy-to-use interface of anonymous apps and websites makes access and utilization easier than ever, leading to the rapid dissemination of information.
This also creates an environment conducive to destructive micro rumor-panics.
According to James Richardson, Joel Best, and David Bromley in their book The Satanism Scare, a rumor panic is defined as a collective stress reaction to rumors about immediately threatening circumstances. A rumor-panic is a widely-occurring, fear-provoked response that may include protective behavior (such as staying inside, buying guns, or closing off the community) and aggressive behavior (such as group attacks on the perceived threat). A rumor-panic is temporary and intense, often resulting in severe backlash and flight-or-fight reactions.
And, most importantly, rumor panics are based on rumors and one or more trigger events.
This phenomena should start sounding familiar to you as a member of the Mount Holyoke community. In the past two months alone Mount Holyoke College has seen two notably intense rumor panics emerge from Yik Yak and the Confessional. The first occurred during the much-anticipated APAU party Pajammy Jam on September 26th. The second occurred during Mountain Day on October 6th, when an unidentified man was given a no-trespass order after he was “displaying inappropriate behavior”.
Both panics lasted only around 24-48 hours, which is much shorter than a traditional rumor-panic. However, the effects are similar in nature, and therefore can be described as micro rumor-panics. It is important to note that duration does not mean that the panic did not have an impact; there were clear consequences of the two panics that happened here on this campus.
In order to analyze both micro-rumor panics, it is essential to establish the actual facts known to the community through verified information sources. The APAU Pajammy Jam party was a party in Chapin Hall co-hosted with the Delta Chi Ques, who are a part of the city-wide Delta Chi chapter serving Western Massachusetts. The event itself was incredibly well-attended but not sold out. Chapin’s occupancy is 800 and there were around 500 occupants indoors and 200-250 outside. The party was both loud and rowdy, which is typical of a college party (though not nearly as common at MHC). The party also had a larger attendance by cisgender men than other Chapin parties, the majority of whom were Black. Eventually, according to the Campus Police Crime log, fire personnel purposely pulled the fire alarm to disperse the crowd that was blocking the stairs, which had created a fire code violation. After attendees were cleared out of the building, many groups of students (both MHC students and students from other institutions) decided to meet up privately in common rooms to order pizza and continue their night.
At the same time of the party, an anonymous individual posted on Yik Yak that they were raped. The anonymous poster elaborated that the perpetrator was a student from UMass and that they were acquaintances. Although this happened independently from the APAU party, the flood of posts on Yik Yak alarming the public of loud and “dangerous” males was soon conflated with the rape. Before the end of the night, there were posters on Yik Yak claiming men came into the bathroom and pulled the shower curtain on them, that “someone” was assaulted by a group of “black hooligans” behind a dorm, and that there was a rape because the “fraternity guys” pushed their way into the dorms and raped a student. The reaction was swift and intense. Other posters started commenting that we should keep cis-males off campus entirely because of their perceived sketchy behavior and violence. Others lamented about the noise and questioned whether parties even have a place on this campus. And, of course, APAU was left to deal with the social consequences of being the scapegoat for the panic and ensuing reaction
Here’s the thing: none of those yaks or posts have been verified. Nothing materialized out of any of the accusations or reports of violence and misconduct. According to Dean of Students Marcella Hall:
“The presence of cis-male Black and Brown bodies on campus when the APAU party let out early seemed to conflate a narrative on social media, particularly anonymous social media, that Mount Holyoke students were "unsafe" and that people were being harassed and assaulted. This was not true as far as I know, not a single issue was reported through any channel. And this makes the anonymous narrative unnecessarily damaging to many members of the community.”
Additionally, the following email was sent to the entire school body by Dean Cerri Banks on September 28th:
This morning, Mount Holyoke College Campus Police and the Title IX Coordinator received, through informal channels including social media, information about concerns of a possible sexual assault on campus this past weekend.
The College and local authorities have not received reports of an incident. Anyone who has information or was involved is encouraged to immediately contact the Title IX Coordinator at 413-538-2481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Information also can be reported to Campus Police at 413-538-2304.
We also want to remind the community that confidential support is available through Health Services at 413-538-2242and the Counseling Service at 413-538-2037. Additional reporting information can be found in the student handbook.
I want to be clear; when someone who has been sexually assaulted reaches out, we should not immediately question them or how they chose to communicate (in this case, on Yik Yak). Victim-blaming is not beneficial but instead reinforces the silencing of survivors. However, because this report was made public by an anonymous source, there is nothing the school or the community can do to remedy the situation. This means that, not only does the poster not get adequate help or support they may need, but the entire campus is thrown into a frenzy over the occurrence of such a horrific act on campus. Here, we see the “stress reaction” to rumors about “immediately threatening circumstances.” The APAU party was also a trigger event for this panic, with racism being the clear underlying social cause The more visible presence of black, male bodies (and perceived cis-male bodies in general) resulted in the spread of rumors through anonymous forums, where nobody can be held responsible for their claims. As Dean Hall describes, many of these sentiments devolved to being racist in nature, ultimately leading to damage within our community (especially for APAU and other POC on campus).
Not even two weeks later, another micro rumor-panic emerged. On Mountain Day, a no-trespass order was issued to a young man who was bothering groups of students with “survey” questions and who was generally creating an uncomfortable disturbance on campus. He had been seen on campus previous to October 6th, so Mountain Day was not his first visit to campus. The following email from Dean Hall was sent to the entire MHC community:
I am writing to let you know that earlier today a man was issued a "No Trespass" order by campus police. The person is identified as a white male, approximately 18 years old, with tanned skin, short brown hair and brown eyes. He is approximately 5'7. (Today he was wearing a striped shirt and running pants.) He was seen at the library last night, and at Prospect and Blanchard dining facilities, and also at Mountain Day displaying inappropriate behavior. There is no known threat at this time, however, he should not be on campus; if you see him, please call Campus Police at 413-538-2304.
Thanks for a great day!
The important phrase to highlight from Dean Hall’s email is that the man was “no known threat” to the community. However, by the time the email was sent, the rumor panic had already started to materialize on Yik Yak. It started with an anonymous post including a picture of the man and a detailed description of what he looks like, alerting students to “report him if you see him anywhere on campus”. Immediately, people started commenting that they had seen him around campus as well, and the threat of this man’s presence was soon amplified to an alarming level. Other posted about the “rise of strange men on our campus” and accused Campus Police of not keeping the community safe. Then, people started writing posts connecting the Oregon Community School Shooting from two days earlier to the non-threatening stranger, asking “what if this guy shoots up our school!?”
Of course, this spurred an immediate and intense reaction, with posters claiming they feared for their lives because a man was going to cause a mass shooting. Others wrote on Yik Yak asking for posters to stop because their posts were causing panic and anxiety attacks for the people reading them. However, the speculations continued to escalate until the day came to an end. Although the panic was short-lived, there were clear immediate consequences: people were frightened, the campus felt unsafe, individuals were having anxiety attacks, and our community was hurt.
Although rumor-panics and their social causes have existed pre-online anonymity, anonymous online platforms allow for more frequent anonymous interaction and greater access to a public forum that can be read by virtually anyone. Thus, due to the lack of accountability in anonymous interaction, any person can write or share any material without any consequence.
So why is it important to recognize how online anonymity has affected the Mount Holyoke community? Because both of these panics were fueled by unverifiable rumors, and both of these panics caused real and lasting damage. In essence, the perceived source of the panic isn’t real, but the consequences are.
And we, as members of this community, have an obligation to each other. Trust is key to a community, yet trust is impossible when members are masked by anonymity. The purpose of a community is not to tear each other apart with hurtful rumors and unnecessary postings on anonymous platforms. The point of a community is to form meaningful bonds and to lift each other up, to criticize and dialogue with each other but to do so respectfully.
And, of course, to do so with our name clearly attached.