It’s been about two weeks since news of the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal broke. Naturally, a story about a ring of celebrity and cash-rich parents paying anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to help their intellectually-adequate children gain acceptance to elite universities by way of bribery and outright fraud took off in the media and online conversations. While most people knew or suspected to some extent that wealthy children have a better shot at gaining acceptance to college through carefully-timed donations or legacy status, the parents in the Varsity Blues scandal took their efforts to the next level, paying a for-profit college counseling agency in California to help their children cheat on college entrance exams or pose as “recruited athletes” to ensure admission.

While the story itself is the stuff of the dramatic Hallmark movies in which actress Lori Loughlin will no longer be able to star (the network ended its relationship with the actress after news of the scandal broke), it’s also an interesting look into how modern-day scandals are discussed – and evolve – online.

Just as the media is moving on to the next big story, we took a look at data from the Zignal Labs platform around the Varsity Blues scandal to see what we could learn. Here’s what we found:

Five Days Flat

While the news first broke on March 12, it took a few days for online conversations to hit their peak, on March 15. After the peak, data from our platform shows a precipitous drop, with online conversations bottoming out by March 17, just two days after the peak and only five days after the story first came to light. If anything, our data shows just how fleeting news cycles and consumer attention spans are in our modern media landscape.

Bad Blood

When we looked at sentiment data related to online conversations around the Varsity Blues scandal, the dominating sentiment is, unsurprisingly, negative. The few positive and neutral stories center around schools rescinding admission or enrollment to students implicated in the scandal, a decision those incensed by the fraud likely celebrated.

Celebrity Obsession

Curious to see what exactly was being discussed in regards to the scandal, we looked at data around trending individuals and companies tied to Operation Varsity Blues. When it comes to individuals, celebrity parents Lori Laughlin (of Full House fame) and Felicity Huffman (of Desperate Housewives renown) are unsurprisingly the most-discussed players in online conversations, with Loughlin far and away becoming the “poster child” of the scandal, despite the dozens of parents who have been indicted in the scheme.

Rick Singer, the previously unknown mastermind of the cheating ring, comes in third, but far behind his more publicly-facing cohorts. Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade, who is currently enrolled at a university in California and who has received heavy scrutiny and criticism in the days following the revelations, and Loughlin’s fashion designer husband and co-conspirator Mossimo Giannulli, round out the top five most discussed individuals.

Aside from the universities involved in the scandal itself, several well-known brands and companies were also implicated and brought into online conversations around the Varsity Blues scandal. Olivia Jade, who is an online beauty influencer, had relationships with three of the companies trending in conversations around Varsity Blues – Sephora, Tresemme and Smashbox. Following the news of the scandal breaking and the resulting outcry from consumers, all three companies ended their relationships and collaborations with Olivia Jade. TPG Capital and PIMCO, a private equity investment firm and investment management firm, respectively, were also brought into the spotlight because they fired employees – and parents – who directly participated in the scandal.

A Diversity of Opinion

Now that the initial shock waves of the story have dissipated, trending stories around the scandal have become more and more diverse, transforming from simple presentations of fact to a more diverse collection of opinions.

The top story of the last two weeks, for example, is about the first book deal to come out of the mess – announced just two days after the story broke. Aside from one stalwart news piece from Apple News, other trending stories include a piece from satirical site The Onion, discussions of how the scandal will impact university admissions in the future and several pieces from right-leaning political news sites that urge increased scrutiny of the school admissions of other public figures, including Malia and Sasha Obama and gun control activist and Parkland High School shooting survivor David Hogg.

Digging in a little deeper, when we looked at the top tweets around the scandal, we found much more nuanced conversations. Rather than addressing the players directly involved in the scandal, trending tweets over the last two weeks have focused on the societal implications – and injustices – of the scandal. Two of the top tweets, for example, contrast the treatment of indicted Varsity Blues parents with a woman who was convicted and imprisoned for simply lying about her address to get her son into a better school. Adding to this theme, other top tweets discuss how the wealth, privilege and confidence of the parents in the scandal provided them protections and advantages that many others do not have.

It’s interesting to note that the author of the tweet about the mother who lied about her address to try to get a better education for her child, as well as the authors of the other top tweets focused on more nuanced societal issues surrounding the scandal, received the most engagement on Twitter, beating out traditional news sources and journalists like Dan Rather and The Los Angeles Times.

While our data confirmed many of our expectations around the scandal – that the overall sentiment around the scandal would be decidedly negative and that the celebrity players would dominate online chatter – we also made new discoveries. For one, we found the online news and conversation cycles around the story were even shorter than expected, even for such a widely discussed story, a reminder to communicators that when a crisis occurs, the time to act is incredibly short.

We also found that once the initial fact-finding and outrage had quieted, online conversations very astutely put a lens on the educational and wealth disparity issues that our country is currently facing, demonstrating the power of social media to influence, broaden and sustain a conversation beyond the limits of the often more glancing traditional media.

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