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How Electronic Chinese Whispers and A Pop Star Caused London Panic

By Ian Moyse | @IMoyse

Last Friday, I got a panicked call from my wife, terrified and distraught hiding under a table in a London restaurant fearing for her life. She had been looking forward to a fun family night out at the Royal Variety Show and thought she had been caught up in a terror attack – which later turned out to be a false alarm.

She was sitting in a restaurant just off Oxford Circus, where the mayhem began. Crowds rushed past screaming and barging through the restaurant to get away. It quickly turned to mayhem. Lights were switched off and people hid, terrified in the dark.  People shared what information they had. I got a call saying people had heard gunshots and there was a terror attack underway.

Following the official accounts

Like so many, I was panicked. I switched on the news. Then I started checking @metpoliceuk alerts, and turning to following other ‘official’ accounts on Twitter.  I quickly noticed a difference in what people were tweeting and re-sharing, and what the official accounts reported.  The official line was “stay safe, avoid the area and at this moment no evidence of gunshots or shooting has been found. Armed police are on the scene and the facts are not clear yet”.

Social noise, however, was saying gunshots had been heard, people knifed, a vehicle had driven into people and more. The Daily Mail even reported a story of a vehicle driving into people and gunshots as if it were fact, a story which was quickly deleted when the truth came out. Another example of an official news publication creating false so-called news based on social media rumours and not factual reporting.

We then have a pop star, someone that I liked by the way, doing something really stupid! With 7.8 million followers he chose to share that a message that implicated that he had heard gunshots. How would you have reacted if you followed Olly Murs and saw this? Well many re-shared this post helping rumour become ‘truth’. Chinese whispers have entered a hyper-electronic age where through accidental mis-interpretation, re-sharing and commenting they rapidly become the truth.

All too easy we now see how fake news becomes real news to the masses within minutes, causing panic in the streets that escalates fast.

“No news”, a vacuum to be filled with rumours

To be fair, many people were tweeting requests to stop sharing rumours and rely on the official news. But when the official news is ‘no news’, a holding pattern until we have the facts, it becomes far easier to believe rumours and propagate them further.

This WILL happen again, hopefully without becoming the cause of injury or worse as terrified people panic and push others aside.

We live in a social world whether we like it or not. We have a US president sharing, commenting and stirring up his followers on social media. And now we see panic in the streets stemming from a few social tweets that reach millions in seconds. What next?

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