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Mizzou and the KKK

The past month has been a roller coaster ride for at least several university campuses across the nation. The University of Missouri, Yale University, and Ithaca College come to mind. What these three universities have in common is a student body that is sick of what they perceived as administrative indifference to alleged acts of blatant racism on or around campus. They believe that racism in this day and age should not be tolerated and are appalled that it still exists. While their intents are clearly noble and definitely something we should strive for, one must also keep a level head and judge the authenticity of an alleged claim before jumping into action, as your actions could potentially be based on false information.

I will use the model of information cascades to analyze the response to a claim made by the student president of the University of Missouri, Payton Head. On the night of November 10th, the University was already on the edge as tensions have been increasing following the resignation of the University president. For some reason or another, the student president posted on social media warning everyone of a perceived threat. His exact words are:

“”Students, please take precaution. Stay away from the windows in residence halls. The KKK has been confirmed to be sighted on campus. I’m working with the MUPD, the state trooper and the National Guard.” (They weren’t on campus at all.)

Based on his wording, it appears that it was not him that directly saw the KKK on campus, but rather he received a signal from an outside source that had made the decision that a threat was indeed on campus. Payton Head, now with this signal, and his own private information, decided that the signal was genuine and accepted it, and spread it on social media. We can assume that everyone who sees his post also has not directly spotted any KKK presence on campus, but they do know that the student body president, as well as a source that he trusts, has accepted the signal. This, coupled with the heightened awareness on campus, led to what I believe is an availability bias to be present in the private information of others, that made people more likely to accept the signal than to reject. I also think that the fact that Head posted his warning on social media expedited the speed of the false information cascade, as anyone who saw his post could start a new cascade; his post was a node with new cascades forming as edges.

It was unfortunate that Head’s post gained as much traction as it did because it damaged the legitimacy of the cause that they were trying to support. I think from this, it appears that the timing of a signal can also affect the successfulness of an information cascade; fear was on everyone’s minds at Mizzou and as a result this false information cascade spread like wildfire. We should be weary of this and apply this to our own lives so we do not start witch-hunts just because that’s what everyone is talking about. Hopefully people will realize this when they hear about all the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is being spread around the United States today.



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November 2015