This month’s discussion is inspired by the panic that was caused at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) over false claims that there was an active shooter on the premises. Police did not identify a shooter, and the reports derived from the police arresting a man who was wearing a mask and wielding a plastic sword. Only weeks before, at JFK airport, there were reports of a shooting at the airport, which also turned out to be a false alarm. The ‘gunfire’ was in fact Usain Bolt’s cheering fans.
Both these cases had an element of truth. At LA airport, those posting to social media genuinely mistook a man wearing a mask for a shooter, and at JFK they mistook cheering for gunfire. However, there are also cases where information on social media is posted with the sole intention of deceiving. During the 2011 London riots for example, several unsubstantiated claims which were spread on Twitter. These included the following:
· Rioters attack London and release animals
· Rioters cook their own food in McDonald’s
· Police beat a 16-year-old girl
· London Eye set on fire.
During Hurricane Sandy in 2012 certain false tweets were picked up by the mainstream media and reported as fact. More generally, regular users of social media platforms will encounter highly shared false content on Twitter and Facebook. Some such content may simply be a practical joke. A recent article, for example, reported that sixty Facebook profiles had been created for non-existent Houston restaurants. Often though, the misinformation is malicious. Several falses rumour about transgender people have been spreading on Facebook (eg, the rumour that a company was installing urinals in women’s restrooms).
China takes the issue of false news from social media very seriously, and has recently clamped down. A case could be made for a system where users are prosecuted for posting malicious information during disasters; but the issue of more casual false information is difficult to solve.: educational solutions such as educating users and highlighting the importance of basic fact checking would help ease the trend though. Craig Silverman has collated several must-read sources on how to verify information from social media users in real time, and I would highly recommend looking at some of these resources before the discussion group. There is also the Verification Handbook, a guide to verifying digital content for emergency services authored by journalists from the BBC, Storyful, ABC, Digital First Media, and others.