‘Social Media Run-Amok Rundown’: A Student Snapchat Leads to Mass Alcohol Dumping at UVA

A University of Virginia student sent a Snapchat and a follow-up text to a friend yesterday afternoon jokingly lying that a dorm raid was being carried out by officials with the state’s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC).  Mass student panic and alcohol dumping on a scale worthy of the Prohibition era ensued.

As The Cavalier Daily reports, the original Snapchat self-portrait showed a UVA student at the university police station.  A follow-up text noted, “ABC is conducting dorm sweeps and they found a beer in my common room.”  A freshman who received the text then “sent word of her friend’s dilemma out to a text message group of four of her female friends, and one of them subsequently sent the message to another text message group . . . Though [the freshman who received the original text] told her friends immediately after learning she had been tricked, the power of social media had given the rumor a life of its own.”


How crazy did things get?  RAs in the dorms began warning their residents– many of whom then began quickly warning their peers and simultaneously confiscating their alcohol stashes.  The Cavalier Daily sent out a breaking news tweet.  And the student who originally lied to inadvertently cause the whole mess even started believing that maybe the raid was really happening (!).


Most humorously, in a digital sense at least, “[t]he ‘#UVAdormsearch‘ and ‘#operationcharlottesville‘ hashtags on Twitter became a forum for second-hand accounts of students being taken to jail and a place for people to join in the hysteria as students hurried through dorms to dispose of alcohol in dumpsters.”

Cavalier Daily social media manager Greg Lewis constructed a Storify of the whole shebang, which he slyly dubs the “social media run-amock rundown.”  The Washington Post’s higher ed reporter Jenna Johnson separately captured the most hilarious tweets sporting the #UVAdormsearch hashtag specifically.  Her post is a must-scroll.  Two standout tweets:



In an editorial about the incident, the Cavalier Daily argued, “Monday’s frenzy escalated to comic proportions for two primary reasons. First, and most critically, an interconnected student body linked by social media and other forms of instant communication caused false reports to run rampant.  Second, a climate of fear surrounding alcohol use . . . led students to believe that police officers could or would enter their rooms without permission– and against what the Constitution allows– at a school that, on a sunny afternoon, lies in Monticello’s shadow.”

For some, one other shadow lingering over #UVAdormsearch is the Daily’s own role in the comical frenzy.  A commenter beneath the editorial: “Whoever sent out the Twitter message from the [@cavalierdaily] account should be fired.  That wasn’t only terrible journalism, but it spread fear and panic.  It would have taken one simple phone call to university police to learn if it were true or not, yet the [Cavalier Daily] only further instigated the panic by retweeting false claims of evidence.  Shame on you!”  A separate tweeter: “[R]eliable journalism requires proof, not just repeating Twitter allegations.”

It’s obviously more complex than that.  But the incident does raise questions: Should staffers have held back from reporting what other students, including RAs, were spreading, without more official confirmation?  In a real-time reporting environment, what is the appropriate level of proof when passing along information about a situation that was clearly still in development?  And can an initial faux tweet be forgotten amid a slew of responsible follow-ups?


Cavalier Daily editor-in-chief Kaz Komolafe was kind enough to pass along her take.


As she wrote me: “Talk of dorm searches had been circulating since late yesterday morning.  Once we received email confirmation from resident advisors and senior resident advisors we felt comfortable sending out the initial tweet. After then, we used the Cavalier Daily account as a means of crowdsourcing information from other students and faculty members.  To be clear, every tweet after then was devoted to counteracting the rumors that were spreading among students, housing and residence life, and faculty members. We called ABC, Charlottesville and University police, and contacted resident advisors.  When we determined that it was a hoax we found the source and made sure to publish a full clarification of yesterday’s events.

“We had no intention to mislead any students, and I fully believe in the validity of our reporting, especially given the importance of social media in 21st century journalism.”


Virginia’s Cavalier Daily Going Digital-First: ‘Riding the Wave of Contemporary Journalism’

Amid President’s Ouster at Virginia, Cavalier Daily Steps Up, Provides Outstanding Coverage

6 Responses to “‘Social Media Run-Amok Rundown’: A Student Snapchat Leads to Mass Alcohol Dumping at UVA”
  1. Kelly Wolff says:

    They (and my students as well) need a more clear definition in their minds of what “confirmation” means. “I also heard the rumor” or “I also saw it on social media” is not confirmation. “I saw police or witnessed authorities entering a room” could be confirmation. The difference between journalism and social media is journalism does not allow unsubstantiated rumors to be communicated to their audience. The relevance of journalism is dependent on firmly drawing the line between rumor (even rumor amplified endlessly by social media) and fact.

  2. peanut gallery says:

    It’s worth pointing out that the Cavalier Daily created and promoted use of the #UVAdormsearch hashtag. They did the digital equivalent of walking into a crowded theater and shouting: “FIRE! Fire!? Anybody heard about a fire!? Hey, turns out there’s no fire… Hey guys, settle down!? There’s no fire after all….. guys??”

    Then they ran a story about the ensuing panic and a finger-wag editorial about the danger of spreading false rumors:

    In my opinion, the editor should be a little more reflective about this rather than offering a knee-jerk defense of “crowd-sourced” journalism. Digital tools are necessary, sure, but any objective analysis of this shows that they propagated and amplified a fake story.

    (That said, they did a nice job tracking down the Snapchat hoax victim and getting her on the record. The Cav Daily generally does good reporting and is staffed by hard-working students who are learning the journalism ropes. Still, a touch of humility in this case would be nice….)

  3. Dan says:

    It’s better to get it right than to get it first. Every journalist should know this. The Cavalier Daily should apologize for not fact checking. All it would have taken was asking the RAs and senior RAs where they were getting their info from.

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