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A laptop screen shows a Palestinian flag being waved at a protest. The words "true?"; "lie?"; "fact?" and "false" appear around the image

As the campus protests continue, universities are contending with fake and conflicting reports and social media posts.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Etienne Laurent/AFP via Getty Images | Spencer Platt/Getty Images | Chanikarn Thongsupa/Rawpixel

False reports about a raised Palestinian flag at Harvard University. A misinterpretation of Muslim students gathering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Conflicting stories about a bike lock used during an occupation at Columbia University.

As the pro-Palestinian protests continue, universities are contending with fake, conflicting and confusing reports about events on and off campus. Videos and photos of the protests have flooded social media sites, and some are altered or given misleading labels or headlines.

“I’ve definitely seen fake accounts and networks of fake accounts pushing narratives,” said Darren Linvill, co-director of the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University. “Bad actors are trying to exacerbate this issue; from the perspective of state actors, it’s ripe to drive a wedge into.”

The question of whether institutions should interact with the rise in misinformation, if it all, is also a divisive topic.

To Address or Not to Address

Experts are torn on whether a university should address misinformation about events on their campuses. Linvill said universities, at the very least, need to put correct information on their websites to dispel false reports.

“They want this to go away and want no one to talk about it, but that ship has sailed,” Linvill said. “You always want to be putting out the truth. I think sitting there and letting others tell your story often goes wrong.”

Harvard chose to respond with an online statement after the flag furor. On April 27, protesters raised Palestinian flags on the Harvard campus. As detailed by the fact-checking websites PolitiFact and, several Facebook posts made misleading claims, including that the Palestinian flag had replaced an American flag and that the university itself had raised the flag.

“The flags raised by protesters over University Hall were removed by Harvard facilities staff. The protesters’ actions are a violation of University policy and the individuals involved will be subject to disciplinary action,” Harvard wrote in a statement, adding that the “American flag was not flying on University Hall at the time the other flags were raised.

While Harvard chose to rebut the false posts, Yotam Ophir, head of the Media Effects, Misinformation, and Extremism Lab at the University at Buffalo, said it is best to not bring attention to the misinformation—and that doing so can often bring unintended consequences.

“The problem with universities trying to fact check and correct misinformation is many people might not see them as objective or impartial,” Ophir said. “In my view, it’s always best to leave fact checking to professionals, to websites like, that have the resources and capacity to identify and correct misinformation in ways that are nonpartisan.”

Erik Nisbet, the director of Northwestern University’s Center for Communication and Public Policy, said universities should speak out—regardless if they are believed by the general public—and do so in a methodical way.

“Even if people disregard or dismiss fact-checking—it’s important to have accurate information on the record and accessible,” Nisbet said in an email. He advised not repeating misinformation and to provide alternative, accurate explanations to misinformation targets “rather than simply refuting the false information.”

Linvill added universities should be making subject matter experts available to talk, versus solely relying on the administration.

“The only time I’ve seen university faculty involved is when they’re getting arrested by the police,” he said. “And not having meaningful conversations on how to talk about these things, both with the public and the students. I’m sure it’s happening in some places, but universities aren’t talking about it.”

Joan Donovan, a Boston University professor of journalism and emerging media studies, believes there can be a balance struck on acknowledging the false reports—but when the misinformation begins to incite violence, a university needs to weigh in on the facts.

“It’s a big question. It really depends on what the misinformation is about and who it’s targeted at,” she said. “When misinformation is used to cause fear or panic, it’s incumbent upon the university or any administrator to make it known what's truly happening or not happening.”

Nisbet and others cautioned there could be an uptick in misinformation, as it is often tied to big events. He pointed toward upcoming graduation ceremonies as an example.

“The campus protests and the narrative around them are still emerging and misinformation may build the longer they endure,” Nisbet said. “Graduation may be a focusing event (like elections) that generate greater volumes of misinformation—especially if protests impact or interfere with ceremonies and events.”

Identifying Misinformation

A key in identifying misinformation is first understanding why a bad actor would create misinformation in the first place—it is usually for money, a political agenda or a mix of the two.

PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free expression, recently released a revamped guide to misinformation specifically tied to the pro-Palestinian protests.

“There were instances in which members of the media were being blocked and some of that void was filled with some questionable information,” said Tim Richardson, program director of journalism and disinformation at PEN America. “We wanted to get out in front of that and provide guidance on some of the best practices.”

Richardson said the biggest key was getting news from credible, diverse sources, in order to avoid confirmation bias.

You always want to be putting out the truth. I think sitting there and letting others tell your story often goes wrong.

Darren Linvill, co-director of the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University

While identifying the misinformation falls on the reader, it could be helped by university offerings of media literacy courses. There has been an increased awareness of the dangers of misinformation—with some institutions going as far as requiring students to complete media literacy courses before graduation.

Ophir teaches a “misinformation” course at the University at Buffalo, and believes it could be one of many ways universities could help students navigate the fraught online landscape.

“A big thing is developing students to think more critically and understand the information environment in which they operate,” Ophir said, adding that environment focuses on political and emotional extremism. “Educational systems in general, from very young ages, should equip students with those literacy tools.”

Boston University’s Donovan believes beyond media literacy, journalism practices in general need to be taught to younger generations, regardless of their majors or career ambitions. Generation Z, she said, is the first to both consume and create media.

“We need high schoolers and freshmen to learn about journalism ethics, so they can be better participants on social media,” she said. “The practice of journalism itself needs to be taught to younger people, as they start to utilize social media and have a public voice.”

In Pictures: Campus Protests

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