Friday, March 25, 2011

U of I sends alert for shooter who doesn’t exist, social media backlash follows.

About 87,000 emails and cell phones received a startling message around 10:40 CST, when the minders of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign emergency alert system mistakenly sent the following message:

“Active shooter at BUILDING NAME/INTERSECTION. Escape area if safe to do so or shield/secure your location.”

Almost immediately, students began texting and updating their online social networks to gather information.

Until this, the campus was at a lull -- most students had migrated home for spring break. But the previous day, U of I police sent out alerts about a large fire which destroyed a longstanding gyros eatery on Green Street, a popular destination for students. Some thought it was a poor use of resource meant to keep students abreast of life-endangering emergencies, not to be abused by broadcasting contained situations.

Then, about 11 minutes later, U of I police send this message:

“The previous message was sent in error. For details, please read forthcoming MassMail.”

Then, six hours later, the mass email arrived:

“To the campus community: This morning at 10:40, an Illini-Alert message was sent to 87,000 email addresses and cellphones indicating there was an active shooter or threat of an active shooter on the Urbana campus. The message was sent accidentally while pre-scripted templates used in the Illini-Alert system were being updated. The updates were being made in response to user feedback in order to enhance information provided in the alerts.”

The message continued, “The Chief of Police has charged the campus emergency planning office with reviewing and documenting todays incident. We are reviewing comments we are receiving as a result of the incident and will implement all reasonable and appropriate ideas or suggestions.”

But the incident had already reached national attention. The Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, the Associated Press, Time and Gawker Media.

Even Funkmaster Flex, hiphop DJ on New York’s Hot 97 radio station, tweeted and wrote about it.

This is a Streamgraph of messages containing “U of I” on twitter. Tweets made on Wednesday, March 23 with “U of I” frequently mentioned Zorba, the name of the restaurant that was destroyed in a fire that day. “Tuition” was another big topic -- as U of I trustees were preparing to vote Thursday on a 6.9 percent tuition increase for incoming freshman.

After the erroneous alert, though, the most common words in tweets containing “U of I” were “sent,” “alert,” “talk” and “shooter.” The dramatically increasing slope of the line at about 12:00 shows a flurry of activity on twitter relating to the false alarm.

This is a similar chart, but specifically looks at tweets that had both “U of I” and “shooter” in the message. The chart doesn’t go back far enough to show 10:40 a.m., when the first alert was sent out, but the height at the beginning of the chart suggests a great deal of activity around that time.

The activity then tapers off at around 11:41, but then has an echo -- possibly relating to one or more major news outlets breaking news online -- which subsides at 12:38 p.m. There’s silence, then another bubble at 3:04 p.m., again possibly relating to a news update.

The next bubble comes at 4:53 p.m., which correlates to the time when U of I police sent out their long-awaited mass email on the situation, at which point the chart ends.

Shortly after the mass email about the mistake went out, I emailed Chicago Tribune reporters Liam Ford and Gerry Smith. At the time, Smith was using Twitter to locate students who were on campus during the false alert for a news story. Smith received my email, called, and asked about the climate around Champaign and Urbana (some of my response can be read in the Tribune story, in the final graphs).

The Trib reporter was most interested in the student response, which I told them was varied. Some students like myself read the “BUILDING NAME/INTERSECTION” and knew it must have been an error, because the all-caps phrase seemed like a generic placeholder in a computer program that would have been replaced with a real building or intersection in the event of a real emergency. However, given the severity of the message, many students chose to err on the side of caution and treat the warning as credible. Their fears were evident in Twitter and SMS messages.

But the larger point, I told the Trib reporter, was the use (or abuse) of emergency alert messages at the U of I.

A team of 41 U of I students, myself included, created to gauge if alerts adequately reflected the status of crime on campus. We found that the alert system contributed to a climate of fear that did not reflect a minor uptick in crime on campus. Just one alert was distributed in 2006, while 34 were sent in 2010.

More than just a misconception about the volume of crimes occurring, the alerts also created misunderstandings about the source of crime and contributed to racial tension. contributors were recently notified that they’d won a Region 5 “Mark of Excellence” award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

As I told the Trib reporter, the recent error was “totally unacceptable,” and was just the most recent demonstration that authorities need to better understand how mass-alerts can impact the campus, and perhaps should re-evaluate their use of the technology.

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