fake news

How a (Mostly) Fake Campus Controversy Illustrates the Internet’s Outrage Economy

Oberlin is a nice place. The bánh mì is not recommended, though. Photo: Douglas P Sacha/Getty Images

You may recall that a bunch of Oberlin students, hopped up on the most noxious forms of activism wafting over the nation’s elite colleges, recently flew off the handle over bánh mì, of all things. They absolutely freaked out. It was insane.

That, at least, is the story line that has set in among the sorts of people who follow campus social-justice controversies: Up until a few days ago, if you’d searched “Oberlin bánh mì” on Google or Twitter, you would have gotten a steady stream of stern denunciations of those ridiculous college students.

But on Friday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a legitimately fascinating revisionist account by Vimal Patel about what really happened during bánhmìgate (sandwichghazi?). It turns out that almost all the aspects of the story that caused it to go viral are unfounded or exaggerated. It’s an informative case study in how the internet’s outrage economy works and in how fast outrage content can travel before the truth even has a chance to leave the starting gate.

The story is behind a paywall, but here’s a brief summary: The whole thing started when “a Vietnamese student [named Clover Linh Tran] told Ferdinand Protzman, the lecturer teaching a newswriting course in the fall of 2015, that some international students had concerns about food in the cafeteria being passed off as authentic when it fell far short.” Protzman, now the college’s chief of staff, was initially skeptical, but the more he learned, the more convinced he became that there was a potentially interesting campus story worth reporting on here. “The bánh mì wasn’t just inauthentic — it didn’t even resemble bánh mì. Instead of grilled pork, pâté, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork, and coleslaw, according to the student,” writes Patel. “And the ‘chicken sushi,’ Protzman said, was just chicken loaf draped over a little mound of bad rice.”

So Protzman did what any competent journalism teacher would do and encouraged Tran to look into the issue — dining-hall complaints are, after all, exactly the sort of thing student journalists are supposed to report on. Tran interviewed the complainants and Campus Dining Services (the employees of which were unaware that their, uh, creations had caused any controversy), and her reporting culminated in an article in The Oberlin Review with the headline “CDS Appropriates Asian Dishes, Students Say.”

The article is under 700 words long, and while it probably uses appropriation and its variants a bit too loosely — we are talking about a liberal-arts campus in the 21st century — the bulk of the reporting centers on international students who came across versions of their native cuisines that they found completely unrecognizable, which doesn’t seem like a ridiculous complaint. The appropriation talk itself doesn’t come across as particularly overheated. One student is even paraphrased as saying, rather thoughtfully, that “the dining service’s food selections are a reflection of cultural collision, not cultural appropriation.”

The article mentions the possibility of a meeting to allow students to air their concerns to CDS; a follow-up story, from December 4, reports on that meeting and notes that everyone seemed to walk away from them happy. “Representatives from both sides reached a middle ground when CDS delegates agreed to try improving the naming process of meals by not associating excessively modified dishes with specific cultures,” explains reporter Sydney Allen. “CDS delegates added that they will focus on correcting dishes to make them more culturally accurate, specifically Dascomb Dining Hall’s sushi bar. Students also suggested that student associations and CDS collaborate on creating a list of menu items.” It doesn’t appear that at any point there was any actual protest — there were a handful of student complaints and a meeting in which everyone felt heard, and that was that.

“That’s when the professional journalists got involved,” Patel notes wryly in the Chronicle. Six weeks later, the New York Post ran an article headlined “Students at Lena Dunham’s College Offended by Lack of Fried Chicken.” That appears to be the point at which the “bánh mì protesters” meme was truly birthed. The article mentions a protest by the black student union outside the Afrikan Heritage House dorm. That protest did occur, though — as is the wont of radical activists — the students’ complaints and demands covered a wide range, from the quality of the food to their desire to see “a guaranteed 40-hour work week, benefits for part-time workers, personal days, funding for job training, and increased wages” for cafeteria staff. But it was separate from the bánh mì and sushi complaints, and unless you read the article very closely, that isn’t quite clear.

From there, a number of articles all did more or less the same thing, mixing up the actual protest with the much, much lower-temperature complaints over the Asian food. As Patel writes:

Newsweek followed up two days after the Post with its own take, headlined “Oberlin College Students Protest ‘Culturally Appropriative’ Dining Hall Food.” Two days after that, the New York Times weighed in with “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall,” The Atlantic with “A Food Fight at Oberlin College,” and the Washington Post with “Oberlin College Sushi ‘Disrespectful’ to Japanese.” It crossed an ocean and [got] into Britain’s Independent: “U.S. University Accused of Cultural Appropriation Over ‘Undercooked’ Sushi Rice.” Even prospective college students — an all-important demographic for Oberlin — could read about the incident at Seventeen in an article titled “These College Students Claim Their Cafeteria Food Is Racist.”

When you evaluate what actually happened — a few students complained about exactly the sort of thing students have every right to complain about, those complaints were reported on by a student reporter doing exactly what student reporters do, and everyone involved had a meeting at which everything was resolved without any sort of actual drama — it’s baffling that this became a national story and a three-word (“bánh mì protest”) punchline.

But the simple, rather transparent incentives and forces of the outrage economy, which center around hate-clicks and -shares, inflated a minor campus story to ridiculous proportions. Naturally, those clicks and shares are easiest to generate when a story slots neatly into a preexisting trope — in this case, the coddled, overprotected American college student — or can be shaped so that it seems to. No matter that it doesn’t appear there was any actual protest — just civil discussion — over the bánh mì or the sushi and that the kids who complained were international students intimately familiar with the cuisine in question, rather than, well, supposedly triggered American “snowflakes.” People click on stuff that reinforces what they already know, and algorithms make sure such content is rewarded. It’s a big part of the reason everything feels so stupid right now.

This post has been updated.

(Mostly) Fake Campus Controversy Illustrates Outrage Economy