Activists who cried wolf: students must prioritize educated activism, not misinformation

Several studies conducted by sources such as PBS News Hour and Education Week have found that fake news reaches viewers, especially teenagers, at a rampant speed. While student activism is essential to societal reform, misinformation runs rampant on social media, a popular source teens access for information. (Infographic by Nayana Celine Xavier)

Just as baby panda pictures, in-vogue fashion trends and vacation posts spread like wildfire with the click of a button, false accusations and misleading calls to action do as well. The instant communication present on social media is the power behind activist movements crucial to societal improvement; however, this of the internet contributes to incidents of libel and slander—the harming of someone’s reputation through written or oral speech. In order for these libelous incidents to stop, students should prioritize source credibility and make sure that they are educated from a variety of legitimate sources.

On Dec. 14, two students had a physical altercation at Fairfax High School (FHS) which allegedly included racial slurs and a student’s hijab being removed. According to NBC Washington, FHS administrators gave both students in-school suspensions. As a result, students and community members garnered over 35,000 signatures on a Change.org petition. Thousands of reshares of the event on Instagram also claimed the altercation included racial motive or even sexual assault, igniting protests at high schools around the county, including CHS. However, according to WTOP News, the Fairfax County Police Department investigation found no evidence of a hate crime, citing that the student’s hijab partially fell off during the incident. Subsequent interviews established there were no official allegations of sexual assault.

Despite the positive intentions of student activists, the impatience to quickly spread information via social media clouded the truth behind the incident, leading to additional rumors and gossip. Believing victims who courageously make themselves vulnerable by speaking out is crucial to much-needed societal reform; however, slanderous gossip and activism based on rumors needs to be stopped.

At the end of 2021, FCPS filed a petition in response to a lawsuit from a former student who claimed in May 2018 that their high school mishandled a sexual assault report. The appeals petition argued that the school system should not be held accountable for mishandling a sexual assault case when they were not aware the assault took place

This led to the creation of an erroneous Change.org petition that claimed that FCPS was trying to institute a “one free rape” policy in which assaulters have immunity and won’t be punished for the first incident of sexual assault. Links to the petition were quickly disseminated across social media, and walkouts were staged by various FCPS schools. 

However, FCPS never asked for a free pass for sexual assaults, but rather legal leniency and clarification when it came to assigning blame to the school for actions administrators were unaware of.

When activists fight for causes without proper research, choosing to accept sensationalized rumors instead of the truth, they invalidate the efforts of organizations that are able to successfully create positive change. 

Furthermore, these practices of misinformation extend to a broader context outside of schools. According to Statista, 10% of Americans have knowingly shared fake news, and the impact is tangible. For instance, ahead of the 2016 presidential election, a breakdown of the top 20 election stories on Facebook found that ones with fake information had 8.7 million interactions and ones that were accurate had 6.7 million interactions. Through streams of fake news, the spread of inaccurate information has the ability to effectively and unfairly detriment the rumor’s target.

On Feb. 4, blazing messages were left in the English hallway girls bathroom after an allegation of rape was levied against a student. (Katelyn Chu)

In order to combat this issue, students must explore a variety of sources and be aware of biases. According to the University of West Florida, checking credentials, reading a variety of sources and judging information harshly are important steps to take to avoid sharing fake news. 

Our society must support the freedom of speech and the fundamental right to protest unjust actions, especially at a crux in time where racial bias and discrimination by law enforcement are still predominant. 

While it is unrealistic to identify the truth in every allegation, or to expect for these incidents to fully stop, it’s important to maintain belief in victims’ stories. However, the seemingly common incidents of rumors and gossip fueling slander in the name of protest are counterproductive. We need to prioritize education from a variety of legitimate sources–a crucial step in the progression towards an equitable society.