The bad social media smell started to rise early. All-caps tweets about coming face-to-face with the perpetrator. Passively voiced reports that the presence of a JFK shooter “can’t be confirmed”. It was narrative chaos locked into a destructive feedback loop with the bedlam on the ground. Frightened passengers rushed for exits, pushed their way onto the tarmac, and cowered in terror as police flooded the scene. All along the way, travelers tweeted, streamed, and Instagrammed their distress, an online panic that generated its own kind of terror despite the non-existent physical threat.
And who would have done otherwise? Responsible journalists know they have to confirm the news before reporting it; that obligation becomes all the more paramount when the news has the potential to spur a stampede. But when everyone with a phone can broadcast their version of events to the world as they happen, the story will get out before the facts do. On Sunday, just two weeks after the JFK incident, the same social media-fueled pandemonium engulfed LAX. Like a misheard meme gone viral, an eccentric in a Zorro costume and a few loud noises morphed in the collective imaginations of LAX passengers and law enforcement alike into a potential mass killer. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights to the airport as travelers spilled onto the airfield. Never mind that no one had ever fired a shot. Americans today now reasonably measure the time between massacres in months. And that fear, combined with social media’s sweeping immediacy, also makes weaponizing bad information all too easy.
“We’re in new territory with socially driven panic,” says Joshua Marks, executive vice president of aviation connectivity at Global Eagle Entertainment. The Transportation Security Administration has procedures in place for clearing the terminal when someone breaches checkpoint security, he says. “When passengers decide on their own that there’s a security issue, there’s no playbook for that.”
Controlling the Narrative
Social media, like any media, facilitates storytelling. The problem at JFK and LAX was that the story had no author. Or everyone was the author, which amounts to the same thing. Because no voice of authority cut through the noise, everyone in those terminals followed their own signal.
One prevailing theory of the JFK panic is that people somehow misheard a noisy celebration of Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory as an outbreak of violence. (Side note: Are you kidding me?) From there, bad information spread faster than the Jamaican sprinter himself. The story even leapt terminals. One Port Authority official told The New York Times that reports ricocheting across social media platforms may have misled others into believing the purported shooter was in Terminal 1, not Terminal 8, where the false rumor apparently first flared up.
Watching the JFK fact-free panic unfold from the comfort of my couch across the country, as so many others did, was like watching a fog roll across San Francisco Bay–unstoppable and all-obscuring. Yes, as the Times reports, the incident gave airport officials the opportunity to see the flaws in their own security procedures that left them ill-equipped to separate the facts from the freakout. The police, it seems, found themselves caught in as much confusion as travelers on the ground or anyone else looking at Twitter. Maybe now they can develop a system to counteract that.
But even if the authorities themselves had come to a quicker consensus about a possible threat, the information infrastructure simply isn’t in place to quell the fires of panic stoked by so much social media FUD. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp have become default ways information flows in public spaces. (Ever notice how many people are on their phones at the airport?) But in so many cases, authorities haven’t figured out how to use those platforms to cut through the morass of misinformation–that is, to exert guidance over the narrative.
Airports need to rethink how they handle such incidents, Marks says, and he believes the recent LAX panic will serve as a case study. Airport operators need to work with the TSA and airlines to coordinate a response when the problem isn’t on the ground but online. Counterintuitively, that means having more online first responders closer to the real-world action. Airlines have centralized social media hubs that in many cases have become skilled and efficient at handling customer complaints. But to act as authoritative arbiters of information, they also need to build up decentralized networks of social media-empowered employees in the airports closer to what’s really happening.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered a review of the JFK incident that should provide the definitive account of that night. Undoubtedly it will take months. But narratives today take shape in seconds. To combat panic at a time when law enforcement jargon like “active shooter” has become a part of everyday speech, people need a counter-narrative they know they can trust and act on in the moment. Authorities must move as swiftly and convincingly online as the bad information itself. They can’t hope that social media will simply fade as other fads might, an irritating obligation to “get on Twitter.” Communicating effectively in an information-saturated environment isn’t easy. But if protecting public safety is the goal, the savvy wielding of facts is key to keeping the peace.