I got a text this morning from a friend warning me not to come to school because of the threat of a school shooting, I’m sure you all have a similar story. I checked my email to find that one of my professors had cancelled their class, and then Twitter to see the screen shots of the message, confirming that a threat had been made. And then, seeing no official alerts, I got on my bike and rode to school as normal.
This morning would have been the perfect opportunity to promote the kinds of social media crisis alerts that we’ve been talking about, but none really surfaced. Social media was abuzz with the story of course, but no official accounts posted evacuation notices. I saw a large number of posts saying that even though the student didn’t make good on their threat, MacEwan was still obligated to send out these alerts and evacuate the school. Despite this criticism, I have to say that I really agree with the school and the police on this decision.
School shootings are a serious matter of course, but it was clear to the school that these threats weren’t serious, it was clear to the police, and honestly, it was clear to me. I went to a particularly rough high school that received five of these kinds of threats in five weeks. And every single time it was some terrible student who was trying to avoid a midterm or avoid having to hand in an assignment. When I saw the tweeted screen captures this morning, I recognized them as the same kind of hollow threats that we’d been getting in high school. Of course I could have been wrong. But based on the police analysis of the situation and my own experience, I was okay with taking the risk.
Crisis alerts are a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But they cause a lot of panic. I had three classes today, and only about six people showed up to each. My friends who stayed home were glued to their social media feeds at home and getting into a bigger and bigger panic over what the situation at school must have been like. Some texts I received from panicked students: “Are the doors barricaded?” “Do you have a police escort?” “Are there really paramedics walking around campus?”
Social media crisis alerts are a wonderful idea and have a lot of potential to be a positive force in the world. But you only have to look at the state of Twitter and Facebook this morning to see how dangerous they can be in spreading panic and false information. Its a delicate balance to maintain public safety and public calm, and social media platforms definitely haven’t achieved it yet.