My phone lit up with a Messenger notification from my boyfriend, who lives in Stockholm. My entire family, all my pre-uni friends, my life before moving here, are still there. In my hometown, Stockholm, where a truck rammed into a crowd on the busiest shopping street. This is not going to be a perfect article, with crystal clear evaluations of the situation. You can find enough of those online. This is merely an attempt to explain what it was like to experience the terror attack solely through media rapports and social media. The fast news, the fake news and the overload on the tele networks which lead people to rely on social media are all aspects that I experienced first-hand. As a communication science student, I asked myself what the role of media is and what it should be in a situation of terror.
My instant reaction when I got the message from my boyfriend was to call my sister via messenger on my iPad, and my other sister on a regular line from my phone. I reached both of them, and later on also my parents and my closest friends. They were all alright. That afternoon in Stockholm, when an entire city of almost 2 million tried to call at the same time, the tele networks caved in and representatives of different mobile operators asked people to use internet based applications such as Facebook’s Messenger instead of the regular line. Telenor, a stable mobile operator in Sweden, estimated that only half of their calls actually reached the net. Besides the immediate contacting of loved ones, the Facebook function which allows you to be marked as “safe”, should not be underestimated. When you have about 400 Facebook friends in the affected region, a quick check if people are alright is just what you need in the moment. However, social media of course also allows for speculations, rapid spread of fake information and panic spreading like wildfire.
Building on this, let’s look at the distribution of fast news. In my kitchen, in Amsterdam, me and my friend were following the news reports live from our different news applications. My phone buzzed: “There is a shooting at Fridhemsplan.” My sister’s high school is a few hundred meters away from that metro station. When I reached her (via Facebook), she said that her school was in complete lockdown because of the shooting. There were police outside. She was scared. After about two hours, they were allowed out, since there had been no shooting at all. During the afternoon, I received news about shootings at T-centralen, Hötorget, Fridhemsplan, Bromma and Globen. None of these notifications turned out to be true.
The Facebook function which allows you to be marked as “safe”, should not be underestimated
My question then is; what is the right thing to do as a provider of news? People rely heavily on news applications to get information and these channels distributed a lot of important regulations, such as which parts of the city were closed off. But should we completely ignore the importance of fact-checking? For me, two sides of the story become evident. Firstly, there is the option to withhold uncertain information, a strategy which the Public Broadcaster Networks were somewhat applying. They reported on what was true and certain, often with comments from police or other officials. The problem with this was that there wasn’t much that was certain. The reports were repetitive and soon lead me to seek other platforms. I was panicking and wanted information. The second strategy, to rapidly distribute news, is successful to attract panicking readers, if we look at it cynically. But, unchecked news could also turn out to be true, and in that case, fast news actually keeps people safe. Say there would have been a gun-man near my sister’s school and no-one was told about it since the reporters were busy fact-checking.
So, what should media be in a situation like this? Fact-checked or fast? According to me, fast news could be acceptable, if it is profoundly stressed that it is not confirmed or checked. In the absolute pit-fire of an attack, the importance is to keep people safe, and I’d rather have my sister locked in a school than walking on the streets with a potential gunman let loose. I believe that readers who are usually capable of carefully selecting media, behave differently when they panic. I know I did. The fact-checked news was simply not enough. I felt as if there was information out there that I was simply not provided with. After the most intense hours however, it is important not to speculate or try to win political points by trying to attribute cause or reason to the event. As we have seen so many times before, this only leads to populist rallying, and god knows we’re tired of that.