There are no litter boxes in school bathrooms.
David Halloran, the superintendent of the Gloversville Enlarged School District, never thought he’d have to proclaim the absence of cat potties in any sort of official statement. But, here we are, living in an age when rampant misinformation threatens to send it all to the dogs.
Or, perhaps, to the cats?
If you aren’t familiar with the “furry hoax” that prompted Halloran’s official response at the start of the school year – and similar responses from school district leaders across the country – you may do better to stop reading rather than concern yourself with such absurdity.
Halloran certainly wishes he hadn’t needed to waste time at a school board meeting refuting the falsehood that kids were showing up to school demanding to be treated as animals.
“It is a very small, vocal minority that promulgates such nonsense, but, of course, other people have to read it and respond to it and think to themselves, ‘Is that really remotely possible?’” Halloran said. “You would think common sense would prevail – and you hope it does – but you’re not shocked when it doesn’t.”
The so-called furry hoax, which gained momentum after a bogus documentary was posted on Facebook, falsely claims that some students identify as animals like cats and dogs. The students come to school outfitted in costumes with tails and pointy ears. They bark, they meow, they hiss, they demand to relieve themselves in litter boxes.
It’s complete garbage. Yes, there are people in this world who enjoy dressing up as animals, but there is no evidence that costumed clowders are stampeding through school hallways.
“Furries are no more likely to think that they’re animals than sport fans are to think that they’re their favorite team’s quarterback,” Courtney Plante, the co-founder of Furscience, which has studied 40,000 furries, who are simply people with an interest in anthropomorphism, told Reuters fact-checkers. Furscience is a group of interdisciplinary professors.
“If there is an epidemic of kids howling and meowing in schools, you’d think it would be easier to find them and put them in front of a camera,” Plante told Reuters.
Yet at least 20 conservative candidates and elected officials, including a Colorado Congresswoman, have advanced the lie, according to an NBC News deep dive on the hoax. On his HBO program, John Oliver’s rebuke highlighted Kandiss Taylor, a Republican candidate for governor in Georgia, who made stopping the alleged flood of furries a major platform in her campaign, tweeting, “The furry days are over when I’m governor.”
Gloversville dealt with the conspiracy at the start of the school year as the school board worked to update the district’s code of conduct. That led to conversations about gender identity and gender expression that struck a nerve with some residents, Halloran said. (The district’s set of standards now includes a gender-neutral dress code and definitions for terms such as gender expression and gender non-conforming.)
“I think that was the impetus that the conspiracy theorists used to launch their conspiracy that the district is providing litter boxes for those who identify as furries,” Halloran said. “Let me be clear: We know of no school district in the state or the country that has considered this.”
One of the reasons the furry conspiracy is so dangerous is precisely because it undermines the very real advocacy of the LGBTQ+ community, especially people who are gender-nonconforming and struggling for acceptance. It seems worth noting that identifying as an animal is not protected by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which recognizes “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information” as characteristics protected from discrimination.
The furry hoax attempts to dehumanize gender-nonconforming and other marginalized individuals.
Additionally, the furry hoax demonstrates just how deeply misinformation has dug its claws into our national discourse. If something so wild and deranged can burrow its way into functioning parts of our society, other tamer-seeming theories that are equally problematic are even more likely to find their way in – and to attract an even larger pack of zealots.
School boards have been especially fertile ground for conspiracy talk recently – be it surrounding vaccines or school curriculum. This is deeply troubling because schools, of course, are where we shape future adults — and in a 2016 study involving more than 7,800 student responses in 12 states, Stanford researchers alarmingly found just how inept many young people are at identifying misinformation online. Describing the results as “bleak” and a “threat to democracy,” researchers found that, among other results, 80% of middle schoolers thought a “sponsored content” article was a real news article and that most high schoolers accepted photos seen online as real without verifying the photo.
That fact that students seem to struggle telling fact from fiction is even more problematic because false information spreads like a virus online. A 2018 MIT study found false news stories are 70% more likely than true stories to be retweeted, and that it takes true stories about six times as long as false stories to reach 1,500 sets of eyeballs.
Combine all of this with the fact that young people – all of us, really – are glued to smartphones. Tweens spend more than 5.5 hours a day, and teens spend more than 8.5 hours a day on screens, according to a March Common Sense Media study. That’s a lot of time spent possibly consuming misinformation.
Clearly, something has to change. If it doesn’t, we’ll all be in some deep you know what.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.