Social Media Played Key Role In University Of Hartford Incident

Social media played a key role in the revelation of the disgusting ways a University of Hartford student said she treated her roommate, but it also acted as a juggernaut that, once unleashed, was out of anyone’s control, particularly the university’s.

“Social media moves faster than news,” UHart President Gregory Woodward told reporters last week. “There will be 10 million people out there who think they know what’s going on before you’ve had a chance to actually tell them what’s going on, and by that time, it’s already too late.

“There’s no way to undo it because no one really wants to read after that. They’ve already decided.”

For Woodward, it was almost impossible to get out ahead of the racially charged incident involving Brianna Brochu, who is white and admitted she had covertly contaminated her black roommate’s belongings.

David Ryan Polgar, a West Hartford writer on the ethical use of social media and technology, said it’s “the new normal” for universities and corporations.

“Their lawyers and their PR can’t craft the story that they normally would because you have a platform that acts as a megaphone that allows the victims and allows for everyone else to take part,” Polgar said. “They are not able to contain a story the way they used to.”

Brochu’s actions first surfaced when she posted on Instagram on Oct. 17, referring to her roommate as “Jamaican Barbie” and boasting about how she had spit in her roommate’s coconut oil, put moldy clam dip in her lotions, rubbed used tampons on her backpack, and put “her toothbrush places where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Brochu later said that she licked the victim’s plate, fork and spoon and put her own tampon blood on the victim’s backpack, but denied other actions that she posted on Instagram. She told police that “anything else she bragged about on social media was a lie in an attempt to ‘appear funny.’”

The 18-year-old has been banned from the school and was arrested and charged with breach of peace and criminal mischief. West Hartford police have requested that she also be charged with intimidation based on bigotry or bias, a hate crime.

Frederick Lane, a Brooklyn-based expert on the impact of emerging technologies and the author of “Cybertraps for the Young,” said that social media has enabled a “power shift,” allowing victims to tell their stories.

“There is a small ‘d’ democratizing effect of social media and that’s what this young victim amply demonstrated,” Lane said.

Why Brochu would want to broadcast her own wrongdoings — even enhancing them with a few misdeeds she later said she didn't do — is far less understandable.

Without her Instagram post, her actions might never have come to light.

When her roommate, Chennel Rowe, who is also known as “Jazzy,” didn’t think that the university had responded adequately to the situation, she posted a lengthy video on Oct. 31, detailing what Brochu had done to her, questioning whether it was related to the unexplained throat pain she was suffering, and expressing her frustration at what she perceived to be the university’s lack of action.

By the time Woodward found out about the matter, on Tuesday Nov. 1, the video had already gone viral.

He said that the university was following all the proper university and legal codes, with the West Hartford police conducting an investigation and making the arrest, but that these procedures take time and Rowe was not aware of what was the university was doing.

“The social media is a couple of steps ahead of us all the time, so you can say what you can, you try to tell the truth and be transparent and, hopefully, people read it and catch up,” said Woodward, who spent much of last week meeting with students and faculty discussing the incident and ways to improve racial understanding on campus. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.”

Woodward said he has received thousands of emails, including a number of threatening emails, and even death threats.

Polgar, who is also an expert on digital citizenship, said social media often acts as “a runaway train” while corporations or universities may be “stuck in a 20th-century mind-frame. You are thinking: How can I contain them? Let me take a few hours to digest this.”

In this case, Polgar said the incident perfectly fit the national narrative related to other racial incidents around the country and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It was the recipe for virality. You have a racial issue taken in the zeitgeist of what’s going on around the country,” Polgar said. “It already fits a media narrative, and then you have the social media elements. You have someone doing something pretty horrid and disgusting. Social media kind of acts as a crowdsource on the idea of right versus wrong.”

Rowe’s motivation for posting a video explaining her point of view is clear and may have exceeded her aims, garnering national and international attention and a #JusticeforJazzy campaign.

For Brochu, Polgar said he thinks it’s all about the obsession with getting likes. “We often don’t post what we like, we post what will be liked,” Polgar said. “If you remove the metric, people post differently.”

“People are live-streaming crimes, they are taking selfies with stolen goods. It happens all the time,” Polgar said. “We’ve made social media ‘likes’ into a currency where the modern day rock star is a social media star. We are so obsessed with the idea of internet fame that we oftentimes do things that are nonsensical and seemingly outrageous.”

Michelle Drouin, a developmental psychologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said people who are more prone to anti-social behavior are more likely to post their wrongdoings. But, sometimes, it’s also people who are simply used to posting everything they do every day.

“I think she probably thought that people would think it was funny,” Drouin said of Brochu. “I don’t know that she was looking to establish herself as an evildoer. I think she was saying, ‘Look at what I’ve done. Isn’t this funny? Ha, ha, ha.’”

Lane said he’s seeing an increased blurring “of appropriate and inappropriate posts on social media.”

“These kids are so used to posting everything that they are doing, I think it just becomes a default action,” he said.

Lane said he also believes the the current political climate, with President Donald Trump posting angry or potentially offensive tweets, has “changed the nature of the things that are posted. I would argue that people are willing to post things that they previously would have been embarrassed or would have recognized might get them into trouble.”

Young people think less about what’s appropriate and more about how to be entertaining or provocative, he said: “They look at how social media is being used in ways designed to create a reaction. They are more aware of the qualities of something that make it go viral.

“Attention is sort of the currency of social media. How many likes do you have? “

“For some social media users, it is as if you do something and you don’t report and record it, it didn't happen,” said Dr. David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor at the UConn School of Medicine and the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford.

“Reflected self-esteem only occurs if what you do is transmitted and shared with others. What she did wouldn’t really matter unless she told someone about it.”

Greenfield said social media is “a huge social change agent, but it moves information faster than our capacity to process.”

What can a university president or corporation leader do in the aftermath of a social media frenzy?

“People in this social media age like humility and honesty,” Polgar said, “so if you were the University of Hartford, in order to get in front of this, the more you can say, ‘All right we want to be as transparent as possible. If we made a mistake, this is a teachable moment.’ People tend to take this narrative: ‘I was blind but now I see’ mentality.”

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