Clown panic caused by fake UAlert, rumors on social media
Alarm spread through students and parents earlier this week when rumors surfaced that armed clowns were roaming the dormitory buildings and campus. Fake, blurry images of these allegedly nearby clowns went viral on Twitter. The University of Arizona Police Chief, Dean of Students and other UA experts are setting the record straight.
Rumors were also circulating that the Posado San Pedro and Coronado residence halls were evacuated after clowns were sighted within the buildings, but these claims were also untrue, according to Chris Sigurdson, UA's vice president of communications.
“We need to emphasize that being a clown is not against the law, and dressing up is not against the law,” said UAPD Chief Brian Seastone. “What we’re afraid of is that, because of this frenzy, ... somebody’s going to inadvertently get hurt just because they dressed a certain way.”
Seastone said that UAPD received between 20 to 30 calls when panic first broke out about the nonexistent clown sightings.
“Moms and dads back east are being awakened at 3:00 in the morning about false information, and really on information that had no credibility whatsoever,” Seastone said.
Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Kendal Washington White said one of the biggest pieces of advice the UA wants to stress is that UAlerts come from the university, not through social media.
The UAPD is still continuing their investigation of who created and sent out the fake UAlert stating that there were multiple reports of armed and knife-wielding clowns on campus.
“If we could determine who created that and then distributed it, that is definitely a violation of the Code of Conduct,” Washington White said. Seastone said the same violation could be a criminal act as well.
"If it didn’t come over your own phone, it’s probably not legit,” Seastone said.
In regards to reporting suspicious activity, both Seastone and Washington White said it is important to emphasize there is a difference between propagating rumors and reporting a legitimate sighting.
“Our UAPD colleagues always say ‘if you see something, say something,’ and the key word is ‘see,’ ” Washington White said. “Report what you’re actually seeing, not necessarily what you’re hearing.”
“Now, somebody in a clown outfit itself is not suspicious,” Seastone said. "It’s the action and behavior that makes it suspicious.”
Seastone said suspicious behavior could include if anyone was lurking around, following people or making threats. In those cases, he encourages students to “absolutely call [the police] about that.”
With Halloween approaching, Seastone and Washington White said they understand people will be in costumes and will want to celebrate the holiday. Seastone said it is just all about “time, place and manner” when it comes to what is in good fun and what goes too far.
“We’re not prudes,” Washington White said. “We want people to be safe, we want them to be responsible and we also want them to have a great time.”
Catherine Brooks is the director of UA’s Center for Digital Society and Data Studies.
“The role social media plays is that material gets pushed around much faster than it would move if it were face-to-face only, or images in print,” Brooks said. “The big concern I have is: What do you do when you have maybe a real clown and you have almost a mob mentality?”
According to Brooks, about 6,000 students at Penn State gathered to hunt and chase clowns after similar rumors had spread on their campus about clown sightings earlier this week.
“[That] is very scary because what would have happened had they run into one?” Brooks said.
Seastone said he does not want people at the UA to get chased for “who they are, what they are or anything else.”
“This isn’t Pokémon,” Seastone said. “Why are we going after and chasing these people down? They have done nothing. The people that are chasing them ultimately could face disciplinary and criminal charges depending on what happens.”
Brooks said that false assertions of dangerous clowns are crimes that can “suck up” emergency personnel, which is exactly what happened Monday night.
“We’ll respond and do what we’re supposed to do,” Washington White said. “This hoax stuff is just not a good use of anybody’s time.”
“Because the clown has become the latest thing to fear, given social media, the new variety of bomb threat this week is not a bomb at all—it’s a clown wandering down the road,” Brooks said.
Brooks compared the clown-sighting hoax to “the latest meme” that inundates social media briefly with all kinds of users’ reactions and hype.
Clowns in this situation could be considered a group offset from the rest of the public, and others might feel like encouraging the hoax because they see how much disruption it can cause, according to Diana Daly, an assistant professor in the school of Information.
“It has to do with people wanting to feel like part of a larger threat,” Daly said. “This behavior is generally understood as a public reaction against a counter public.”
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