Twitter and the #Ottawa Attacks

As we move past the immediate shock, anger and grief precipitated by the attack in Ottawa last week, debate is beginning in earnest on several fronts: the motivation of the attacker, the adequacy of existing laws to meet ‘lone wolf’ threats, and the risks of another attack.

But there are other, more prosaic questions. For example, one that remains unanswered is why much of downtown Ottawa remained in ‘lockdown’ for five or six hours after the single gunman was killed. It would be hard to prove, but one can’t help but suspect that Twitter and social media in general played some role in what we should now admit was an over-reaction.

Did Twitter and other social media help or hinder an appropriate response to a terrible but isolated attack?

For those of us who don’t follow Twitter, the events of last week brought a stark realization: we no longer have a choice. As the events unfolded, with attacks at the cenotaph and in Parliament, the media were all running to catch up with Twitter. Indeed, a visit to the home page of any major Canadian news outlet took one more or less immediately to a prominently displayed Twitter feed. On the radio, journalists were reading out tweets.

In short, you don’t need to be following Twitter or even to tweet; just watching or listening to the news—at least in a moment of crisis—means we’re all on Twitter now.

Is this a problem? Reflecting on last week’s events, it might be. It appears that an awful lot of misleading information was given much greater credence due to Twitter. The tool places an obvious and relentless pressure on journalists to get ahead of the story, and to do so by circulating unverified reports.

Consider: in its bare-bones version, what emerged as an accurate account of the day’s events? A cold-blooded shooting at the cenotaph, with a soldier badly wounded and later pronounced dead. Minutes later, several shots in the hallways of Parliament, two persons wounded, and a gunman with a long rifle killed. Then a lockdown throughout the downtown core of Ottawa near Parliament as a search proceeded for a feared second gunman.

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And then consider reports that were widely circulated by journalists: two men in black jumped from a car and ran towards Parliament; a gunman (men?) were on the rooftops near Parliament; a second, or even a third gunman was at large, in the downtown, or near the Chateau Laurier, or in the Rideau Centre, or “travelling 140-150 on motorcycle on [highway] 417”; more shots were fired “near Chateau Laurier” or “off Parliament Hill”, or in or near the Rideau Centre; a second shooter had been shot; cell phone coverage was “jammed”.

These were tweeted with varying qualifications like “reported” or “unconfirmed”, but sometimes without qualification, and often claiming the police as the source.

None of these reports proved true, in the end (the “jammed” cell networks were caused by overuse, not intentionally). But tens of thousands of people, myself included, believed some of them were true. They were credible because, in the downtown core near Parliament, there was a massive and very heavily armed police presence, that itself was acting as if more gunmen were still at large. This continued for several hours, while thousands of us remained ‘locked down’ in office, hotel and university buildings.  And for those who weren’t close to the action and couldn’t see the swarms of heavily armed police, journalists and the general public were tweeting pictures and video footage of this siege-like police response.

Police confirmed on the evening of the attack that there was no second gunman. It remains puzzling, therefore, why most of Ottawa near the Parliament, including office buildings, schools and a university, remained in lockdown for five or even six hours after the only gunman had been shot dead. The best explanation is that the police had some credible information pointing to a second or third gunman, and therefore correctly took extra precautions. But if that is the case, it is odd they have not yet, more than one week later, indicated the source of that information.

Or maybe, and perhaps even understandably, they were spooked by the attack on Parliament and simply over-reacted. But if so, why did this go on for several hours? Reviewing the surveillance cameras would have clearly shown that only one gunman ran into Parliament. And witnesses to the cenotaph shooting had told the police the gunman had headed towards Parliament.

Or maybe the police, like the rest of us, were reading the Twitter feeds?

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There’s an upside to Twitter and other social media in moments of crisis. They provide an excellent way to share information about places to avoid. In Ottawa, people were receiving accurate information about the danger zone. (Even if it turned out afterwards there was little risk, it might have been different.). No doubt, it helps to send important messages—for example, to parents alerting them their children were safely locked down, that they shouldn’t rush to schools, etc. Social media has also proved immensely useful elsewhere in times of crisis to organize peaceful protest, and to overcome censorship in authoritarian regimes.

And, of course, for those who still turn on the television, Peter Mansbridge was a model of calm, dampening the panic. Nevertheless, those who study the media and the impact of new technologies should review the events of October 22 in Ottawa, and try to answer the question: did Twitter and other social media help or hinder an appropriate response to a terrible but isolated attack?

In the meantime, one can’t help thinking that at past moments of great danger (the Cuba Missile Crisis, for example), when decision-makers needed to ignore the chatter and dig deeper to really understand what was afoot,  perhaps it was better that ‘twitter’ really was for the birds.

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