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4 June 2017

Why did social media react more responsibly to the London Bridge and Borough attacks?

Journalists say there were fewer examples of misinformation and distressing images.

By Jasper jackson

As is increasingly the norm in countries where nearly everyone carries a smartphone, the first news of the terror attack that killed seven and wounded dozens at London Bridge and Borough Market on Saturday night emerged on social media.

But the posts which spread during and immediately after the attack, in particular on Twitter where breaking news tends to travel quickest, featured less disinformation, gore and panic than we have become used to. 

One explanation may simply be down to the attack’s location near the offices of major news organisations, including the Times and Sun, and in an area where a number of journalists from other outlets were eating and drinking.

“There was less fake news and disinformation floating around the internet last night than in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena terror attack,” says BuzzFeed News political editor Jim Waterson, who monitored disinformation through the night.

“Partly this was due to the large number of experienced journalists who happened to be already on the ground or were themselves eyewitnesses, meaning the initial reports on Twitter turned out to be fairly accurate.”

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The nature of the attack – targeting pedestrians with a van followed by stabbings – and the police response, may also have played a part in reducing the number of gory and distressing images that emerged. With many bystanders running from the attackers and the area swiftly cleared and cordoned off, there were fewer opportunities to take pictures of the injured.

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“We generally see less social media footage from eyewitnesses in active situations with multiple attackers than we do during bombings,” says Alastair Reid, a social media journalist at the Press Association. “This may be because people are quite literally running for their lives while terrorists are still on the loose.”

Another moderating influence was the Metropolitan Police Twitter account, which accompanied rapid updates on the situation with pleas for people to stick to verified facts and show restraint in what they shared.

It also issued advice to anyone caught up in the attacks, including an image urging people to “Run, Hide, Tell” which was picked up by broadcast media.

The message, based on best practice guidelines developed by terror experts, may not have reached as many people as broadcasts about how to respond to bomb alerts in the 1980s and ’90s, or the “Protect and Survive” pamphlets and infomercials about what to do in a nuclear attack produced during the Cold War. But it was shared many tens of thousands of times, and for those near the scene using their phones to find out what was happening it would have been hard to miss. 

Another possible reason for the change in behaviour is in some ways the most encouraging – users are learning from previous terror attacks. 

“Sadly, a lot of people on social media also probably learned their lessons from the Manchester attack where a genuine desire to help by retweeting supposedly positive messages or appeals for missing people turned out to be simply boosting trolls,” says Waterson. 

“It might not seem the most important thing to be worrying about online hoaxes in the middle of a terrorist attack but speedy debunking is crucial if we want to stop lies taking hold and avoid the narrative of events being hijacked.”

Reid says the trend stretches back further: “The amount of misinformation around breaking news events has gone down over the last few years. It’s still an issue, but nothing compared to what we saw during the Paris attacks in 2015 and the Brussels attacks last year. 

“People still create it and try to share it, but regular social media users are far quicker to condemn the hoaxers and not share them further than to just reflexively hit retweet.” 

Of course there were still trolls making false claims about missing relatives and deliberately misidentifying suspects following the attack. Others used used the opportunity to score political points, as US President Donald Trump did early on Sunday.

But in the first few hours of this latest atrocity, there was a hint of how social media could be a tool for sharing information that helps, rather than hinders, our response to terror attacks.