Hashtags and hysteria

Patrick Butler
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In a social media age, the speed at which news travels is astonishing, as is the rate at which it’s disseminated. We, the “millennials,” are a generation used to sharing our personal lives online with up-to-the-minute updates for all our pseudo-friends.

According to Facebook Canada, 14 million Canadians use Facebook every day and 19 million log in at least once every month. Canadian social media use is increasingly shifting towards mobile devices that facilitate faster, portable modes of communication. As of this month, 10 million Canadians accessed Facebook every day through a tablet or cellphone app.

Research published by Pew Internet in 2013 showed that teenage American social media users had, on average, 300 Facebook friends each. Typical teenage Twitter users had an average of 79 followers apiece.

Year over year, social networks are growing more vast and newsfeeds are updating more frequently. The flow of pointless, trivial slush is increasingly torrential, but the accessibility and immediacy of social media, especially when something of actual importance happens, is invaluable.

When it matters, the world knows it in minutes.

However, the speed at which social media delivers information can regularly mean seriously fudged facts and dangerous misunderstandings. With a few clicks, unfiltered information from any source can be widely distributed, regardless of its veracity.

Online misinformation can lead to confusion and panic. Last Tuesday’s shooting incident at Memorial University between plainclothes police officers and the alleged suspect, Justin Michael Chipman, is a case in point.

The incident, in which Chipman is accused of stealing an SUV from the parking lot of MUN’s Field House and speeding away from police, resulted in an RNC officer firing a weapon.

According to police, the incident occurred around 7 p.m. Within a few hours, social media had lit up, with #munshooting trending on Twitter. Predictably, posts were plentiful, taking over newsfeeds, so that anyone who logged on to social media was in the know. But the tweets were seldom fully accurate.

“Oh god. Please don’t let there be a shooting at MUN,” tweeted @ASaunders87 at 7:59 p.m.

“Evidently there was a shooting at The Works at MUN, police surrounding the building with guns drawn, people trapped inside,” tweeted @mbarriault 20 minutes later at 8:19 p.m.

By 9:19 p.m., tweets like @coltonridgley’s “Bys shootin up mun now. What’s it comin to,” and @smithdonald2013’s “#munshooting how come the rnc are shooting up suspects in a crowd of people,” were filling newsfeeds and feeding confusion.

According to CBC News, MUN tried to use its official Twitter account to correct any circulating misinformation, only tweeting information confirmed by police. But it did so solely after university officials realized the amount of traffic the issue was garnering on social media.

By that time, false reports of a supposed school shooting were spreading through Twitter like wildfire, and with no basis.

And the online hysteria following last week’s shooting at MUN wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Last fall’s double-murder/suicide in Conception Bay South is another tremendous example of social media-fuelled misinformation.

Although that shooting had dramatically different results, during the incident people also turned to social media as a mechanism for getting their hands on and sharing immediate, up-to-date information. In the same way, widely broadcast misunderstandings of events inspired hysteria and disbelief in C.B.S., just as they did last week at Memorial.

But that’s the danger of a social media world of relatively unfiltered, uninhibited information freeways like Facebook and Twitter, where within a few hours of an event — before media can scramble together the confirmed details of the story and before police have time enough to nab a suspect — a separate story emerges unhindered by verification.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception

Bay South, is studying journalism at

Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.

Organizations: Field House, The Works, CBC News Carleton University

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