How a Student Project on Conspiracy Theories Became a Conspiracy Theory

Great Awakening Conspiracy Map courtesy of Champ Pirinya

Maybe this post is only of local interest, but I wanted share some insight into a disturbing rumor that went viral at Davidson College after credible evidence emerged about neo-Nazi activity among a few Davidson students.

The rumors were scary. The gist was that plans for a school shooting were discovered on a whiteboard in the college library. As Carol Quillen, Davidson’s president, noted in a faculty forum last week, the whiteboard incident was investigated at the time (which was several weeks ago) and thought to be related to a course project. Nevertheless, students and faculty alike have been understandably concerned about campus safety—especially in light of the reports of neo-Nazi students, including one who had apparently attended the white supremacist Charlottesville rallies last year.

It’s difficult to convey to folks not on campus just how frightened students, staff, and faculty have been. Many students, especially Jewish students, students of color, and LGBTQ students, feel entirely unsafe. Even when assured that the whiteboard school shooting rumor was just that, a rumor. (Of course, they aren’t safe. Nobody in the U.S. is safe, thanks to a minority of American’s rabid obsession with firearms and rejection of sensible gun regulations.)

Yesterday some of my students connected the dots and realized that it was indeed a group project that caused the rumors. And not just any group project. It was their own group project. It took a while to reach this conclusion, because the rumors had so distorted reality that the students themselves didn’t recognize their own work as the basis for the rumors.

Bear with me as I explain.

The students are in DIG 101: Introduction to Digital Studies. In DIG 101 we spend several weeks learning about the spread and impact of internet conspiracy theories, including how online conspiracy theories can lead to ideological radicalization. As you can imagine, each new day provides fodder for class discussion.

The whiteboard in question contained a flowchart for a group project about conspiracy theories, specifically the tragic Parkland school shooting, which some internet conspiracy theorists claim never happened. The flowchart connected a variety of conspiracy elements (biased media, false flags, crisis actors, etc.) that sprung up in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The flowchart contained no inflammatory statements or threats. It was diagnosing a problem.

After brainstorming on the whiteboard and doing other work, the group presented their project to DIG 101 in the form of a case study on October 26. In class students considered school shooting conspiracy theories from various perspectives. These perspectives included a parent who had lost a child in the shooting and social media executives whose platforms have helped the spread of conspiracy theories. 

The students in this group designed the class study with incredible empathy toward with victims of school shootings and with enormous skepticism toward adherents of conspiracy theories. They are horrified that their own project about the dangers of internet conspiracies itself became the basis of a disturbing rumor. They never imagined their class project would contribute to a climate of fear on campus. 

As I said, this project took place several weeks ago, well before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. It simply was not on the students’ minds last week, which is why they didn’t realize at first it was their group project at the heart of these rumors. Quite literally, one of the students in the group—in a class discussion about the whiteboard and the possibility that it was trolling or part of a class project—said with all earnestness to the rest of the class, “who would be stupid enough to draw up plans for a school shooting as part of a class project?” It bears repeating: the rumors had so distorted the contents of the whiteboard that even students in the group did not recognize their work as the basis for the rumors.

It wasn’t until two days ago that one of my students made the connection, purely coincidentally. That student just happened to be in another class that just happened to have a faculty member sitting in for the day who just happened to have an accurate description of the whiteboard from the campus police report. The faculty member shared that description with the class. Once the student heard that the whiteboard contained two diagrams, with the words “a school shooting”, “4Chan,” “reporting it”, etc., and appeared to reference how information about school shootings traveled online, everything clicked in place for the student. The student then contacted the campus chief of police.

As my fellow faculty members and college administrators have readily acknowledged, my students did absolutely nothing wrong (except perhaps forgetting to wipe their whiteboard, a lesson that will forever be burned into their souls). This was a legitimate course project, tackling a real world problem. Their case study and ensuing class discussion were excellent. The way their project about conspiracy theories yielded its own toxic stream of misinformation ironically highlights the need for critical media literacy.

Davidson College still faces many difficulties in the days and weeks to come, but at least one terrible revelation from the past week we can now consider from a more contemplative perspective. I and my students are grateful for this community and its vision for a better world.

Header image: Great Awakening Conspiracy Map courtesy of Champ Pirinya

Colson Whitehead at Davidson College

Colson Whitehead at Davidson College

The novelist Colson Whitehead just wrapped up a visit to Davidson College as our 2019 Reynolds speaker. The annual Reynolds Lecture was established in 1959 through a gift from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Every year this endowed lecture brings a distinguished guest from the humanities, arts, or sciences to campus. Former Reynolds speakers have included Alison Bechdel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nicholas Kristof, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and many others.

I’m the chair of the Reynolds Lecture Committee this year, which means I had the honor of introducing Colson to a packed house in our main performing arts hall. After Colson’s talk (performance, really), a few people asked me about my introduction. I’m sharing it here, in hope that it does some good in this world beyond the 500 or so people who heard it tonight.


It’s tempting to say that whatever Colson Whitehead’s novels are about, they’re always about something else.

His debut novel The Intuitionist wasn’t really about a divide between two factions of elevator inspectors in an alternate reality New York City. It was about race, about passing, about postmodern blackness.

Likewise, Colson’s 2011 novel Zone One wasn’t about a zombie apocalypse in present-day Manhattan. Not really. It was about identity, the loss of identity, about the monstrous other, and the question of, as the poet Gil Scott-Heron posed it in 1970, the question of who will survive in America.

Colson is here tonight to talk about his latest novel, The Underground Railroad, which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the National Book Award. Unlike his other novels, The Underground Railroad is resolutely about what it appears to be about. It’s about slavery. The long, brutal legacy of slavery.

In the novel the underground railroad—that death-defying perilous journey out of the slave-owning South—it’s an actual railroad, an actual railroad that runs underground. It seems fantastical and it is, but it lays bare the comforting lies America has told itself about its past. Oh, the underground railroad, you just hop aboard and you’re on your way to freedom. No. The truth, as Colson insists by paradoxically using fiction, the truth was much harder to bear.

Colson’s visit couldn’t come at a better time. In The Underground Railroad each state finds its own way to deal with the problem of slavery, a parody of the patently false notion that the Civil War was about state’s rights. In North Carolina slavery is replaced with a kind of indentured servitude just as dehumanizing as chattel slavery. Meanwhile today in North Carolina the General Assembly wages a war on democratic values with racially based gerrymandering and open attacks on the state judiciary, motivated by a goal that goes all the way back to the end of Reconstruction, which is the goal of disempowering black voters.

Colson’s visit couldn’t come at a better time. Just last week at Davidson signs cropped up all across campus, overnight. The signs read simply, “It’s okay to be white.” If you don’t know, this superficially benign affirmation originated on 4chan, an anonymous Internet message board and the spiritual home of the alt-right. The signs were essentially the materialization of white supremacist Internet trolls into our physical world. Like Colson Whitehead’s novels, the signs say one thing, but they also mean something else.

In times like these, times marked by hate, vulnerability, precariousness, we turn to literature. Cora, the fugitive slave at the heart of The Underground Railroad, faces, as Colson puts it, “travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather.” Such travesties continue apace today. And Colson Whitehead, by looking to horrors of the past, gives us light for the present. And for that, we are grateful. His visit—his novel—could not come at a better time.

Everyone, please join me in welcoming Colson Whitehead.

DIG 210: Data Culture

Data chart from We Feel Fine

A new course for the Digital Studies program at Davidson College. Influences for the syllabus abound: Lisa Gitelman, Lauren Klein, Ben Schmidt, Matt Wilkens, and many other folks in the digital humanities.

Course Description

“Data” is often considered to be the domain of scientists and statisticians. But with the proliferation of databases across nearly all aspects of modern life, data has become an everyday concern. Bank accounts, FaceTime records, Snapchat posts, Xbox leaderboards, CatCard purchases, your DNA—at the heart of all them is data. To live today is to breathe and exhale data, wherever you go, online and off. And at the same time data has become a function of daily life, it has also become the subject of—and vehicle for—literary and artistic critiques.

This course explores the role of data and databases in contemporary culture, with an eye toward understanding how data shapes the way we perceive—and misperceive—the world. After historicizing the origins of modern databases in 19th century industrialization and census efforts, we will survey our present-day data landscape, considering data mining, data visualization, and database art. We will encounter nearly evangelical enthusiasm for “Big Data” but also rigorous criticisms of what we might call naïve empiricism. The ethical considerations of data collection and analysis will be at the forefront of our conversation, as will be issues surrounding privacy and surveillance. Continue reading “DIG 210: Data Culture”

Building Digital Studies at Davidson

I am thrilled to share the news that in August I will join the faculty of Davidson College, where I will be building a new interdisciplinary program in Digital Studies. This is a tremendous opportunity for me, and my immodest goal is to make Davidson College a model for other liberal arts colleges—and even research universities—when it comes to digital studies.

This means I am leaving George Mason University, and I am doing so with much sadness. I have been surrounded by generous colleagues, dedicated teachers, and rigorous thinkers. I cannot imagine a better place to have begun my career. At the same time, my life at GMU has always been complicated by the challenges of a long distance commute, which I have written about here and elsewhere. My new position at Davidson will eliminate this commute. After seven or so years of flying 500 miles to work each week, it will be heaven to simply bike one mile to work every day.

And a good thing too—because I have big plans for Digital Studies at Davidson and much work to do. Students are already enrolling in my Fall 2013 courses, but more than individual classes, we have an entire program to design. I am thrilled to begin working with my new colleagues in both the humanities and sciences. Together we are going to build something both unique and uniquely Davidson.