If You’re On The Internet Talking About A Shooting, Remember These Things

Misinformation spreads like wildfire after a shooting. But it doesn't have to.

Reports of a shooting trigger an avalanche of misinformation on the internet.

When a woman opened fire at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, on Tuesday, Twitter immediately lit up with false and inaccurate reports, some from seasoned journalists and reputable news outlets.

With gun violence regularly at the forefront of the news, this faulty dialogue has become commonplace. But there are ways to keep fake news from spreading after a shooting.

Don’t spread information overheard on the police scanner.

In the moments after a shooting, law enforcement officials and first responders are trying to figure out what’s happening and whether a situation is escalating. Police scanners allow anyone, anywhere to listen to their conversations unfiltered. Their questions about a crime scene, their speculation about what might be coming next, all the comments made in the midst of a chaotic situation are on display ― including things that turn out to be totally wrong.

During the YouTube shooting, a first responder was heard on the scanner saying 37 individuals would need “triaging,” or medical attention. In reality, four people were treated for injuries ― three who were shot, and one who injured an ankle while running from the shooter.

But it was easy to find tweets that said 37 people were injured. Even some journalists and news outlets, like Newsweek, shared the line. (They later deleted their tweet.)

Law enforcement officials and first responders aren’t journalists. Their conversations immediately after a shooting are rooted in speculation, not fact.

Be careful how you label a shooting.

A lot can sound like “shots fired.” Cars backfiring and fireworks are two things commonly misreported as shootings.

Even when shots have actually been fired, that doesn’t always mean there’s an active shooter, or someone with a gun continuing to go after others.

Even when there is an active shooter, it doesn’t always mean anyone has been shot. 

Even if a person was shot, it doesn’t mean the suspect is carrying out a “mass shooting,” the definition of which is not clearly defined. (An incident is commonly called a mass shooting if three or more people in a similar location are shot, though law enforcement and media outlets often use different standards for the term.)

Don’t assume you know the shooter’s motive.

Several outlets, including the Associated Press and CNN, reported the YouTube shooter was involved in a domestic dispute, which wasn’t true. Sometimes a shooter’s motive remains unclear for months, as is the case with the Las Vegas massacre.

Wait for an official confirmation before sharing a suspect’s identity.

With almost every major shooting in America come false reports of the shooter’s identity. Sam Hyde, a comedian, is almost always brought up as a “shooting suspect,” his image being shared so often The New York Times called it “an identifiable meme.”

Adam Lanza, who killed students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, was found with his brother Ryan’s ID, leading several media outlets to initially report he was the suspect.

After the YouTube shooting, BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko kept track of hoaxes, including a tweet that claimed she was the shooter. 

Don’t spread information overheard on the police scanner.

Seriously, don’t.

Take eyewitness accounts with a grain of salt.

People in stressful situations don’t always know the full details of what’s going on around them. Many only see one area of a much larger crime scene.

It’s common for law enforcement to investigate leads on multiple shooters after a mass shooting situation that was carried out by one person, thanks to conflicting reports from people who were there. But there’s almost always just one shooter.

Be careful when talking about the number of victims.

Numbers included in official statements from law enforcement statements and hospitals are often updated to more accurately reflect who was treated. And there’s often confusion about the extent of injuries during a shooting ― just because someone was injured doesn’t mean they were shot; just because someone was shot doesn’t mean they were killed.

Be mindful of where the media is getting its information.

Anonymous sources and eyewitnesses are commonly cited by journalists after a mass shooting. While that information can often help paint a picture of what’s unfolding, it can also be very, very wrong.

News outlets will often cite other news outlets’ reporting after a shooting, and it’s good to know the original source of any information you’re reading. A “fact” about a shooting may be widely reported, but only supported by one source talking to one outlet.

Don’t believe everything you see on Twitter.

Is the person tweeting new to Twitter? Do they normally post from the area where the shooting occurred? A few seconds of digging can help add clarity to who a person is and if they’re legit.

Doctored photos are often shared after mass shootings. You can find an image’s origin by doing a reverse image search.

After the YouTube shooting, one victim’s Twitter account was hacked. An individual posed as a YouTube employee to try and trick a HuffPost reporter into sharing false information. Don’t trust that people in your Twitter timeline have accurate information or good intentions.

Don’t spread information overheard on the police scanner.

I actually cannot say this enough. 

Be careful about what you share.

Doctored Facebook posts and tweets with bad information spread like wildfire after a shooting. Before hitting the share button, make sure the information you’re flagging for your friends is accurate by taking a few seconds to fact-check. And remember the internet is massive ― things you share will be shared and shared and shared again, going way beyond your friends.