Investigators: Social media at heart of election night incident at UM

OXFORD — The University of Mississippi faculty/staff Incident Review Committee (IRC) assigned to determine the facts of a widely reported election night incident has released its report, finding that student misrepresentations on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, were fuel for the events that happened on campus that night.

The IRC has forwarded the names of 14 students to either the Office of Student Conduct or the Office of the Provost for further investigation and possible disciplinary/academic sanctions or participation in a restorative justice program, including 10 whose social media posts were “particularly egregious.”

According to UM, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits disclosure of the names of students under review or the names of those who may receive sanctions following further investigation.

The IRC began its work Nov. 15. Through student, staff and university police interviews, as well as analysis of social media posts, the committee’s findings revealed several key themes for its investigation: the role of social media, university police response, racially charged comments and actions, the role of student media, freshmen involvement and the impact of events on students and the community.

The committee determined that a crowd that grew to 400 students was composed of an “overwhelming majority of students (who) were present as curious spectators.” The committee reported that students (mostly freshmen living on campus) were drawn largely by Twitter to observe what some described in social media as a “riot.” The committee found that student reporters using social media were the first news media to publish the word “riot,” which was repeated in regional and national news.

“We found no evidence of any property damage or physical injuries to anyone, and four university police officers were able to disperse the crowd in little over one hour. No, it wasn’t a riot, but it was a painful, ugly night for many Ole Miss students,” said committee co-chair Leslie Banahan.

“Although the events on the night of Nov. 6 did not constitute a ‘riot’ in the traditional sense, they nevertheless had a deep effect on our students and campus community, reflecting the need for continuing discourse concerning civility and respect for others,” said committee co-chair Kerry Brian Melear.

Students questioned by the IRC said they were surprised to be identified as authors of the rumors and thought they were privately sharing information through “Tweets (messages)” to “followers.” The IRC reported that those followers sometimes numbered in the thousands across the United States, receiving misinformation that was sometimes distributed by students who never left their rooms or actually witnessed the events they described. The social media fabrications were shared even more broadly as followers “re-tweeted” to thousands more. The committee’s report stated that students used social media to report gunfire, people being shot, students being Tased, police use of tear gas, mace and pepper spray, and even an overturned police car, none of which occurred.

A university committee is studying alternatives for advancing racial reconciliation on campus and the Division of Student Affairs is implementing programs to educate students on appropriate use of social media.

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