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Mum’s the wrong word in MIT gunman hoax

Officials at MIT had good reason to question why the school put out information so slowly after a report last week of a man armed with a rifle and dressed in armor on campus. The report turned out to be a hoax that is now under investigation. But MIT’s delay was disturbing — especially in an era when fragmentary information gets around at lightning speed.

At around 7:30 a.m. last Saturday, Cambridge police received an electronic message about a gunman . The police quickly tweeted an alert, and Twitter exploded with reports of the threat. What was missing for more than an hour was clear information from the university itself. At 8:52 a.m., MIT’s campus emergency messaging system finally sent out a text message, telling the MIT community that multiple law enforcement agencies were on campus “in response to a report of a person with a gun on campus.” At 9:05 a.m., MIT’s official Twitter account tweeted about the situation.

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Fortunately, there was no gunman. By 10:19 a.m., Cambridge police tweeted “No threat to public safety.” Half an hour later, MIT repeated the Cambridge Police Department’s all-clear notice.

The person who contacted police had identified MIT’s president as the gunman’s target — and had cited the suicide of Aaron Swartz as a motivation. The death of the Internet activist, who was arrested at MIT, is a touchy subject at a university that has been widely criticized for its role in his prosecution.

Yet MIT’s leadership has rightly concluded that the school was too slow to alert people. There’s always been a delicate balance between giving adequate warning and causing needless panic over unconfirmed threats. But after school shootings from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook, the need to warn should prevail. When faculty and students are already hearing piecemeal information from other sources, it’s best for universities just to spell out what they know.

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