Fake news and social media blues

Solomon Gustavo staff writer

A Tartan High School hoax is an argument for skepticism


A couple weeks ago at Oakdale’s Tartan High School a student authored a social media hoax that had students pulling up posts and asking teachers, “What’s going on?”

The Facebook hoax convinced some classmates that a student was ordered by school administrators to take of a shirt with the American flag on it, in accordance with a policy prohibiting American flag shirts. 

Some students saw the post and brought it to the attention of their teachers. 

Tartan staff responded with a shrug. No one had heard of a flag shirt incident, much less a no flag shirt policy. 

It never happened and the school has no such policy.

Back in March, a much more malicious hoax spread through Mounds View district schools in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February.  

After a night of investigating a reported threat, New Brighton police found no credible danger and posted a Facebook message on Feb. 22, assuring families that Irondale High School was safe. 

On Feb. 27, in another Facebook post, New Brighton police dispelled a rumor of a threat against Highview Middle School, noting that officers visited schools throughout the day to increase their visibility and to help people feel safe. 


Time to commit

Social media specifically, and communication on the web more broadly, has provided all sorts of people with a platform. 

Some of those people — like those blowing the whistle on police brutality or the actual state of strife in war-torn Syria — show that social media has potential for speedy visual and textual communication that can unearth ignored injustices. 

It also hastens communication, churning the daily news cycle with a million narratives a minute. Suddenly the web and social media have been the feeding trough for ever more insatiable users, devouring and demanding more and more content. 

This drive to fill the never-ending timeline scroll has become an unintended consequence of the internet’s communication powers, yielding all the incentive in the world for inaccurate posts. 

A man called Lillie News early this month, saying he was the parent of a Tartan student who’d heard from his kid about the stripping of American flag shirts. His story even went beyond the scope of the shirt rumor — by the time the man had heard about it, kids displaying actual American flags on their cars were being threatened with fines.

He said he was “absolutely outraged.”

The American shirt story struck us in the newsroom as bizarre — too bizarre not to be checked out.

I imagine newspapers have received such calls since there’s been newspapers and telephones, but it’s nonetheless discouraging. 

The pace with which fakeness travels now — and how urgent and real it can look on a social media feed — is downright frightening. 

Getting the blues from new technology is also nothing new. This is not a call to disregard anything on the web or to “disconnect.”

Instead, if we are going to rely on it for information from emergency services like New Brighton police, or spend so much time on social media and get so much information about each other on it, we must commit. Once we dive all the way in, we will get better accustomed to recognizing and relegating fraudulence. 

And that goes for everyone — the people bamboozled in these hoaxes were not non-digital natives but high schoolers, the youngsters who have been updating to the newest IOS since kindergarten. 

Skepticism isn’t an indictment, it’s a healthy, steady way of stepping forward, for forging into what’s surely to be an ever more post-filled future. 


–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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