The term “fake news” is tossed around with startling regularity, mostly by political leaders and members of an increasingly polarized media.
Last week, reports of sex traffickers posing as maintenance workers and abducting individuals at University Village spread like wildfire over Twitter. The popular account @srucrushes1 sent out a tweet in order to inform students about what they likely perceived as a legitimate threat to their safety.
The issue was further exacerbated by the death of 54-year-old Mark Christie at Campus Edge Apartments. After the deceased was discovered on Tuesday, more rumors swirled on social media that this was the result of a sex trafficking incident gone wrong.
All reports of sex trafficking on campus or in adjacent student housing areas were revealed to be false. The university released a statement on September 12 via mass email to the student body stating that all reports were rumors and that there was no validity to the claim. State Police also indicated that no complaints had been received in reference to any such activity and that they had not initiated any form of investigation.
Of course the issue of human trafficking is a serious one that deserves our immediate attention. The Pittsburgh area is no stranger to the problem, with ties to a nationwide sex trafficking ring being revealed in December of 2017.
Nevertheless, it is important to be critical of reports you see on Twitter of any crime related incident. Social media outlets can be a fantastic forum to spread valuable information and engage in spirited, informed discussion. Unfortunately, it can also be a cesspool of misinformation and baseless exchanges of half-truths and rumors.
Accounts like SRU Crushes are not to blame in this particular incident. It is clear that those in charge of the account were trying to help spread information regarding a serious issue. The problem lies in how the popular handle and others like it are perceived.
If SRU Crushes is occasionally wrong about where a party is or if it’s even still happening, it can be wrong about an issue like human trafficking. It is vitally important to hold a healthy criticism with anything you read or hear, especially if it comes from a social media site.
Tweets and posts do not undergo the same vetting process that a news story does before it is published. That doesn’t mean that reports from non-news outlets on social media are always wrong, but they should be taken with a grain of salt. Instead of taking the initial tweet as fact, check other traditional news outlets for further information. If persons posing as maintenance workers were roaming off-campus housing facilities, it’s safe to assume that you would hear more about it from local and even regional news stations.
This does not downplay the importance of reporting suspicious activity in and around our campus. As the adage goes, if you see something, say something. Tell Campus Police if you know or have suspicions of illegal activities occurring in the community.
Working together can help make Slippery Rock a safer place. That includes realizing the unfortunate reality that the free exchange of ideas and information is bound to produce false leads and create periods of hysteria and fear. The best we can do is be informed consumers and continue to look out for one another.