It all started with a Snapchat.
As a flurry of panicked students circulated news that student dorm rooms were being searched by Alcoholic Beverage Control officials Monday afternoon, first-year College student Meredith Markwood came to the realization that what had started as a practical joke played on her by a friend had created school-wide chaos.
Markwood received a Snapchat from her friend around 11 a.m., which showed a picture of the student — who asked to remain anonymous — at the University Police Station, captioned “AT THE UVA POLICE STATION, SOS.”
When Markwood asked her friend for details, her friend responded: “ABC is conducting dorm sweeps and they found a beer in my common room.” That was at 12:08 p.m.
In the ensuing 38 minutes before Markwood’s friend admitted it was a practical joke and she was in fact at the police station to pick up a friend’s lost iPhone, Markwood had sent word of her friend’s dilemma out to a text message group of four of her female friends, and one of them subsequently sent the message to another text message group including five male friends — all residents of Gooch-Dillard.
Though Markwood told her friends immediately after learning she had been tricked, the power of social media had given the rumor a life of its own.
Many of the members of the group chats had already informed their respective fraternities and sororities about the searches, and when she told them it was fake they did not believe her, saying they had already had the information confirmed elsewhere.
“I knew it wasn’t true, but part of me almost thought it was,” Markwood said. Her friend who originally sent the Snapchat heard the rumors herself, and initially believed they were true and that her lie was merely a coincidence.
Several residential advisors informed their residents such searches were potentially taking place, and word spread rapidly outside of the Gooch-Dillard complex to the entire University community.
“I don’t know that many people,” Markwood said. “I thought ‘I can’t have gotten this to the whole first-year class. I am one person. I don’t even have 700 Facebook friends.’”
The “#UVAdormsearch” and “#operationcharlottesville” hashtags on Twitter became a forum for second-hand accounts of students being taken to jail and a place for people to join in the hysteria as students hurried through dorms to dispose of alcohol in dumpsters.
Word came from Dean of Students Allen Groves by 2:30 p.m. that his office was not aware of any searches, and both University Police and Charlottesville Police confirmed shortly thereafter that neither were conducting searches nor had they made any arrests in student dormitories.
News that the pervasive rumors were nothing more than a hoax slowly permeated social networks, and The Washington Post eventually picked up the story of the pandemonium.
RAs received emails from the Office of Housing and Residence Life at 2:21 p.m. informing them that there was “no reason to be concerned,” and that they were looking into the rumors.
Shortly after 3 p.m., RAs received a follow-up email confirming the police were not involved. “If someone is at a resident’s door claiming to have the authority to check their room, please urge residents to contact their RA or call U.Va. police,” the email said.
The incident comes on the heels of increased enforcement efforts by ABC officials to prevent underage drinking in Charlottesville and the University’s directive that all fraternities initiate new members by this past weekend.
“It was not a prank for the whole school,” Markwood said. “[My friend] was pulling my chain because I’m very, very gullible. Clearly.”