Seconds after the first shots were fired at YouTube’s headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, a product manager at the company broke the news of the shooting with a tweet. “Active shooter at YouTube HQ. Heard shots and saw people running while at my desk. Now barricaded inside a room with coworkers.”
Within minutes, major and local news outlets were monitoring the situation. Then, almost immediately, came the garbage. There were: 4chan hoaxers trying, once again, to trick people into thinking the shooter was a comedian named Sam Hyde; speculation the shooter was motivated by YouTube censoring political content; speculation it was religiously motivated; photos of supposed shooters in MAGA hats; unconfirmed images of potential victims and inaccurate death tolls; and numerous conflicting reports that the shooter was female, then male, then female again.
Twitter has long been a vital service for following along with current events as they unfold in real time, and a place where news is both reported and made. But in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, Twitter’s usefulness is offset considerably by a growing chorus of trolls, hoaxers, and irresponsible commentators. It’s loud and reactive at a time when restraint is most necessary. In the chaos of an unfolding tragedy, it is no longer a helpful place to follow breaking news.
This isn’t a new problem — fake Hurricane Sandy images of destruction and sharks swimming on the floor of a flooded New York Stock Exchange went viral and were subsequently debunked on Twitter way back in 2012. But it’s one that’s seems to be getting worse. With every fresh tragedy comes a new, more sinister evolution of previous misinformation tactics.
During the Parkland shooting, BuzzFeed News identified five different people who were falsely passed off as the suspect. Today, there were 25 individuals, including many incarnations of the infamous Sam Hyde hoax. Like with Parkland, two reporters were targets of harassment — Vice political writer Eve Peyser and one of the authors of this post, who was debunking the hoaxes.
When a reporter covering Parkland was targeted, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the company’s policies should be reexamined. Today he said the misinformation was being tracked and action was being taken — but it kept spreading. The shooting survivor who first broke the news had his account hacked to post juvenile, anti-gay messages, and hoaxes kept rolling in. Twitter took down the offending tweets after Dorsey got involved, but its policy remained the same.
Mass tragedies of this variety have become a common enough occurrence that the online chaos is almost orderly; not only does the internet’s underbelly react to these events with alarming speed, but all sides seem to know their specific roles. There’s the channers attempting to spread misinformation for the lulz, the hyperpartisans looking to use the event to confirm past political arguments, the unconfirmed reports from citizen journalists looking for retweets, and the irresponsible journalists and news outlets breathlessly tweeting updates from notoriously unreliable police scanners. All of it serves to drown out the work of those who’re carefully reporting on the ground, vetting, and knocking down reports.
Journalists have always been endeared to Twitter in part because it mimics the process and chaos of reporting, forcing one to navigate a deluge of source material, vetted reporting, commentary, and bullshit. For those reasons, Twitter also does a great job of laying bare the news-gathering process, which can be exhilarating and attractive to bystanders. But good tragedy reporting is also difficult, deliberate, and judicious, which is to say, wildly out of sync with the incentive structures — frictionlessness, virality, scale, and anonymity — that govern Twitter and help fake news travel faster than vetted facts.
In the last two years, Twitter has organized around live events. In 2016, Dorsey mentioned the live focus in almost every interview and earnings call, and fully embraced its crucial role in the journalism ecosystem by reclassifying itself as a news app in Apple’s store. The strategy makes perfect sense. Online, Twitter has no rival for real-time news. It is the best place to collectively take in a sporting event or awards show or to endlessly discuss a Trump scoop.
But for an unfolding breaking news event with lives at stake, it’s hard to see the value of being glued to Twitter. One argument suggests that there’s merit in watching real-time debunks, as it helps build up one’s media literacy. That may be true, but it feels like it comes at an awfully high cost. Behind each debunk is a defamatory image and false allegation, not to mention the time spent by a reporter tasked with batting down what often amount to sinister pranks.
One of the hardest parts of a tragedy as an onlooker is the feeling of powerlessness that accompanies watching the event unfold. Twitter allows a way in and crucially provides a feeling of agency. But too often, it’s a false one.