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Rumor vs. fact: Was social media to blame?

Social media has played a huge role in the disturbance that occurred on campus Tuesday night — not only in the organization of the crowd, but in the regional and national media perceptions of Ole Miss that followed.

The 2012 Presidential Election has been called “The Social Media Election,” and the essence of that label played itself out in the disturbance on campus at The University of Mississippi. The events Tuesday have stirred up controversy, both on a regional and national level.
Students who witnessed the disturbance were informed of the gathering through social media, specifically Twitter, according to multiple eyewitnesses. Local and national news media outlets also reported false information that some students posted to social media websites, setting the tone for how news outlets have covered the story since late Tuesday night.
“Social media tends to be a sexy story for news outlets because it’s still new,” Meek School of Journalism and New Media professor Cynthia Joyce said. “The harder thing is to stay focused, and dig deeper, into the underlying issues. The fact that this happened, not how it happened, is the story. Hate speech has long preceded social media saturation.”
Chancellor Dan Jones spoke to The Daily Mississippian about the role social media played in this situation and other similar situations.
“We’ve seen around the world events that have been spurred on by social media, both the accumulation of crowds and then with the spreading of information without the benefit of professional journalists of putting the appropriate filters in place,” Jones said. “Sometimes social media does provide information that is inaccurate and that’s never a good thing, and so social media may have played some role on the front end or the back end of this, certainly.”
Jones also released a statement Wednesday morning and cited social media as a main contributor to the disturbance.
“The gathering seems to have been fueled by social media, and the conversation should have stayed there,” Jones said in the letter. “Unfortunately, early news reports quoted social media comments that were inaccurate. Too, some photographs published in social media portrayed events that police did not observe on campus.”
Student journalist and Miss Ole Miss Margaret Ann Morgan was on the scene all night and tweeted updates as they came in. Morgan was interviewed by multiple off-campus news outlets on Wednesday.
At 12:25 a.m. Wednesday, Morgan initially used the word “riot” in a tweet: “‘riots” are calmed on #OleMiss campus. Hundreds of students on corner of Rebel Dr. by Kincannon sharing thoughts.”
Morgan continued to tweet quotes as she followed the disturbance, including reports of “people- black, white, etc- throwing rocks at cars” at 12:33 a.m. That tweet had 26 retweets from people across the country.
Morgan said she first heard about the incident through Twitter.
“I called it a ‘riot’ until I got there, and even used that word a few times after I saw it myself,” Morgan said. “I saw what was actually going on where there was no violence going on and immediately retracted my statement and said that ‘protest’ would be a more appropriate term.”
At 1:54 a.m., Morgan tweeted, “I apologize and should clarify that what happened tonight is better described as protests, not riots.”
Business freshman Nelson King was at the disturbance from beginning to end.
“Students saw information about (the gathering) on Twitter, and thought, ‘I’m sitting in my room and not doing anything, so I’ll go check it out,’” he said.
Business freshman Jake Kaloper, who was also present for part of the disturbance, agreed.
“I was off campus and saw tweets that said that there was a riot on campus,” he said. “I went to check it out just because I saw it on Twitter. It turned out to not be anything close to a riot, just a large group of people talking about the election.”
Both King and Kaloper live on campus and said they did not participate in any of the protesting, but were just curious onlookers.
Though most outside media reports have been edited to exclude information about rock-throwing, the word “riot” is still being used.
“I have friends and family calling me to ask what happened,” King said. “Every time, I tell them that it’s completely blown out of proportion by the media, and I honestly think Twitter has everything to do with it.”
Emily Roland contributed to this report.