October is the season of Halloween and tricks and treats, but American university campuses recently have fallen prey to a social media hoax in which a dangerous clown (and sometimes a set of clowns) is reported. Similar accounts have occurred at campuses, where often-blurry photos are posted on social media, the images go viral, bogus alerts are circulated — and no one actually sees any clowns.
"This is as much about the nature of the news as it is about the mode of delivery because today's stories of all kinds move so swiftly," says Catherine F. Brooks, director of the University of Arizona's Center for Digital Society and Data Studies. "Because the clown story is traveling by social media, it is fast and furious. It propagates easily. It moves faster and faster, and it takes hold in communities of people and becomes fashionable."
Universities in New York, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio and Arizona have dealt recently with false claims of violent clowns on campus.
"We find that unpredictable things catch on in social media, like Grumpy Cat or Batdad on Facebook, or even Pokémon Go," Brooks says. "Is it students who like the excitement and like to be scared? Is it that students at this time of the year have time to mess with photos and media to create this kind of hysteria? Are students and their families genuinely worried about these clowns? The mass embrace of clown stories could truly be a mix of all of these things, and it may even be a marketing plan for the latest clown movies or products."
The knife-wielding clown story can be a drain on law enforcement resources on campuses. At one university in Pennsylvania, an estimated 6,000 students attempted to hunt down the scary clown. Campuses have struggled to manage clown-related reports.
"We all need an understanding that some information is misinformation and before panicking we need to use our resources to research further," Brooks says. "On the other hand, institutions have to take these threats seriously, even if they suspect false reporting."
The UA Center for Digital Society and Data Studies, a research center in Arizona's new iSchool in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, aims to bridge disciplinary, geographic, methodological and paradigmatic divides in order to address some of the major technology, data and human-use issues faced today. These include issues surrounding privacy, data curation, digitizing information, organization of data and management of tensions relative to individual identities.
Social media movements, group behavior and online communities such as those involving clown fans are among the sociological topics addressed by scholars affiliated with the center.
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Catherine F. Brooks
UA Center for Digital Society and Data Studies