Twitter: Informative or Panic Inducing?

Twitter: Informative or Panic Inducing?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog on social media becoming the best version of a mass communications system. Since then, the world has seen some truly horrific incidents that have led police departments to Twitter in an effort to inform the general public that there is danger in the area.

These police departments have to balance a very thin line when giving information out on social media in the midst of an on-going incident. On one side of the line there is a police departments’ need to serve and protect. They want to get out useful information as fast as possible in order to minimize the amount of causalities. On the other side, there is haste in getting out information. Tweets are sent so quickly that no one has time to check if the information being shared is actually correct.

This scenario of unverified information getting passed out by a verified source happened recently when an 18-year-old open-fired at one of Germany’s biggest malls in Munich. The Munich police were quick to the scene and also, quick to social media to warn the public about a threat in the city.  

Translation: At the moment, we have a very large police operation at Olympia-Einkaufszentrum. Please avoid the area around the shopping center.

The first tweet to go out on the Munich police official Twitter account was calm and informative; instructing residents and visitors of the city to avoid the area of the suspected shooting. The following tweets would be less straightforward.

Translation: Currently, we do not know where the perpetrators are. Take care, and still avoid public areas.

Several tweets went out in the next hour, most of them confirming that there had been gunfire in the area of the shopping center. But an hour and 15 minutes later, the first panic inducing tweet was sent. The Munich police tweeted that they “did not know where the perpetrators are.”

This is troubling in two different ways. First, until this tweet, there had been no confirmation from a viable source that there was more than one suspect in the on-going investigation. From then on, the rumor that there could be up to three shooters on the loose in Munich took off. Second, the department confirmed that they had no idea where the shooter was located at; a generally troubling and disturbing fact in my book.

From that moment on, the tweets in the timeline of the Munich Police were unconfirmed details that had been called into the department’s dispatch office. Was there a shooter in the City Center? Another crime scene at a different block? Before the next 3 hours had passed, the police created a scenario in which 3 active shooters where targeting people at 3 separate locations, a fact we now know to be false.

Hours later, the police department attempted to clear up some details by explaining that there had only been one shooter and that he had died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

It was perhaps too late for those in Munich, disturbed by the idea that their city was under siege. Twitter user and Munich resident Lenka Judinova said that perhaps the worst part of the day was seeing the police with machine guns shouting orders at her.

Unfortunately, the Munich police are not the only ones to act too quickly in a high-stress incident. Less than a month ago, the Dallas Police Department found themselves in a situation that put their own in danger. Policemen and women were being targeted one by one as a sniper shot from an above window in downtown Dallas. The information started pouring in quickly and most were just wondering who could possibly commit a crime like this. During a small space in time when the Dallas officers had not cornered the suspect yet, they tweeted out a photo of a person who had been attending the peaceful protest while exercising his right to the Second Amendment.

The since deleted tweet was quickly retweeted and gained traction as the city was notified of the 5 police officers killed in the violence.

Dallas-area reporters quickly went to work to find out if the man in the picture tweeted out by Dallas PD was actually the man responsible for the killings and within hours, video of the man surfaced of him handing over his firearm to a police officer so that he would not be confused with the actual suspect.

The Dallas Police Department has since apologized for the tweet and explained that they were only trying to do their due diligence.

So, can we fault police departments for spreading false information in the wake of terrible events? Should there be some sort of training, or procedure put in place to ensure correct information is being posted to social media sites? Perhaps police departments should not use Twitter at all during a situation like the above, but then how will the public know what is going on?

Like I said before, it is a balancing act when police departments use social media.

Posted by Sydny Shepard on Jul 26, 2016


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