Digital Community in Crisis

Digital Community in Crisis

My puppy and I were hanging out on the couch when the MSU alert arrived

Run, hide, fight

My gut dropped. Although I am a online student in Grand Rapids, East Lansing has always been a home to me. Even before I lived on campus for undergrad, I would visit my cousins near campus for weeks at a time as a child. You never think that something as awful as a shooting will actually happen at home. I told my spouse, also an alumnus, about the alert. Spouse was certain that the alert was a drill.I wanted to see what other students were saying, so I logged in to the official MSU Discord server to take a look. If you don't know, Discord is a social media platform in which users can chat privately or as members of Discord communities called servers. To join an official school server members must have a valid .edu email associated with the school. MSU's main SpartanSquad server has over 1200 members, including a handful of graduate students.

Students were already talking about the shooting:

> There are like 30 cops in one spot
> unconfirmed, just seeing this in a cse groupme: shooter is inside the union, lots of people are running out of it.
> again, unconfirmed… just putting this out there
> how often are there shootings on campus? Just wondering...
> do not listen to the scanners, it's really bad

I listened to the police scanners and compulsively refreshed my news feed for over 4 hours that night, alongside others in the online community. Up-to-the-minute information -- and misinformation -- whizzed around the server like cars on a busy highway. So did emotional support and commiseration.

My experience being a member of, and participating in, a cohesive digital community during an emergency made me feel reflective about the similarities and differences between "in-person" communities and those that exist in the virtual world. Real-world neighborhood communities are vital providers of social and psychological resources their members (1). A sense of belonging, trust, and support leads to better mental health outcomes; identification with community positively predicts individual well-being in neighborhoods of deprivation.

During times of crisis, cohesive community relationships lead to beneficial prosocial emergency responses centered around solidarity and support. Unity emerges from members' shared perceptions of common fate during disasters, which facilitates collective efficacy during emergencies.Do online communities provide similar benefits during times of crisis? What lessons can we learn from the MSU Discord server's response to the events in February? Members of the community -- myself included -- undoubtedly experienced something by participating.

Some students who were physically alone that night benefitted

> This sounds dumb, but do you have anything repetitive you could do quietly? Like knitting or sketching?
> I just meant as a calming method
> or if you maybe have a comfort item? like if you have a blanket or a pillow or a stuffed animal that keeping nearby helps you
> I'm giving my cat lots of pets/hugs
> ik. sketching stuff
> Like I'm currently in a pile of stuffed animals
> I'm drinking, but that's because I'm not actually there. Do *not * recommend for anyone barricading rn.
> Maybe thats what I need to in my room with no light in a cold corner
> even texting your parents/loved ones in that situation just to get yourself at ease about the safety of everyone around you can help

Other students received current info and news from the Discord server much faster than from MSU's official communications

> Is something going on on campus? I had someone tag me in another discord asking if I was okay> There is an ongoing active shooter situation
> there's a shooting
> holy smokes

> this 100% isn't a false alarm
> it is an active thing
> shooters still not caught
> Yes this is beyond an actual threat this is live
> thats nuts..

Generally speaking, the Discord digital community helped members feel less alone. Commiseration bounced from dorm room to dorm room

> Im a freshman so this is very new to me
> Sorry guys
> it's new to everyone
> Just make sure you're staying safe
> It is new to me too bro, I am a sophomore
> Bruh it's new for me too I'm an international> i can imagine its new to almost everyone
> no need to apologize
> Never actually expected to experience something like this tf
> sorry i didnt mean for it to sound that way
> same
> Just start where you are bro
> we're all scared
> it's ok
> the fragility of human daily comfort that can be instantly just thrown out the window is quite scary

The impact of participating in the digital community was not always positive.
Misinformation flew as fast as or faster than accurate information.

> wait, so multiple shooters?

> there's someone walking along the halls with an AR-15?

> CONFIRMED shooter in Phillips, absolutely stay safe

> reported gunshots at IM East
> IM East
> Ye, the east is confirmed> 4 reported shots by Hubbard
> 4 shots reported outside hubbard hall
> please im in north hubbard

> The confirmed locations of shooting so far is berkey to union to snyphi to east pathing towards Akers and Hubbard

> Bessey hall gunshots??
> shots reported in bessey hall
> Shot heard at STEM

Misinformation spread rapidly for a few reasons. Police scanners are notorious for stoking panic in times of crisis, and over 240k (2) people were listening in and reacting to each 911 call as fact.

In addition, some students fearfully interpreted the sounds of doors slamming as gunshots in their halls. Their vigilant reports spread through the digital community like a contagion.

The community's content moderators often attempted to quell panic in the server by reminding members that much of what they were reading were unlikely to be what was actually happening.

> Please be careful with the information you hear, situations like this breed misinformation due to panic

While the moderator's reminders seemed helpful to the community, it wasn't until the East Lansing Police Department held their late-night press conference that panic in the server diminished.

I felt moved by the way the community came together for support during the crisis. On February 14th, I exported the Discord chat logs and created a WordCloud.

I wanted to better understand the big picture of the Discord server's response to the crisis. Students clearly benefitted by their participation in the server much the same as neighbors benefitting from in-person community.

Also analogous to real-world communities, natural leaders stepped up to provide extra support and fact-checking.Online communities continue to play a significant role in today's connected world. Public health disaster preparedness must leverage these communities for the assets that they are. This applies in a general sense, as well as in a violence prevention and response sense.

Discord servers usually have 1-5 volunteer moderators. Content moderators are responsible for monitoring conversations and interactions among the server to catch rule violations and enforce restrictions upon users as necessary.

The role of the moderator is central to ensure the safety and privacy of the community. Content moderation shields users from disturbing and/or illegal content as well, including extremism, violence, sexual exploitation, spam, trolling, and other harmful or offensive content.

The SpartanSquad server moderators, alongside other natural community leaders, strived to maintain the community as a safe space through the entirety of the crisis in February. Those leaders must be commended as first responders.Additionally, MSU, other universities, and public health practitioners must provide resources for online communities. What tools do virtual communities need to better manage crises as they occur?

Here are some ideas:

  • Virtual emotional first aid workshops;
  • Information and misinformation management resources;
  • Communication channels between communities and local authorities; and
  • Investment in the communities as valid and effective representations of the real people within.