“VT Alerts Person with a gun reported near Dietrick. Stay inside. Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help.” That was the message at 9:51am on August 4, 2011 that began a 5-hour lockdown (a loose term that was not officially used as it is impossible to completely lockdown the campus) at Virginia Tech. During those hours and beyond, campus and local police searched the campus for a person reported to possibly be carrying a gun.
After first checking in with my staff in the Squires Student Center (I was in a training in another building), my next stop was Twitter. I was hoping to get some additional information from someone who might be outside and saw this supposed individual. Instead, what I saw across numerous hashtag feeds was a barrage of tweets from all across the country.
Some of these included the basic VT stated alert that I began this blog with. Others sent messages of prayers and hopes for safety to the people on campus (including some DM’s to me…thank you to my concerned friends). While many of the rest were a mix of “oh no, not again” and “what are they doing at Virginia Tech to breed this type of people” and others along the same lines. Within minutes assumptions of what was happening were running wild. This continued throughout the day and over the next few days, laying claims that Virginia Tech is some feeding ground for people with guns and that the campus is unsafe.
I can tell you firsthand that this is the furthest from the truth. The response I witnessed was swift and thorough. Some say the campus overacted, but you must remember the sensitive nature of this subject here at Virginia Tech, every precaution was taken to secure the safety of the people on campus.
I was most disturbed by two tweets. The first was a series of messages stating that there was a “gunman” on campus. I get a very different image from the word “gunman” than I do from “person with a gun”. For those following on Twitter, that subtle change in wording turned an investigation into an action of someone firing in campus (note: no shots were ever fired this day). The second message came around 11am and said that “D-2 was now open and given the all-clear.” This message that was retweeted by at least 4 others from what I could find was completely false (the official alert remained in effect until 2:52). Imagine if people began leaving because of this message and there was an actual gunman waiting outside.
Thankfully this event turned up nothing but an inconvenienced day and a solid exercise of our campus emergency response plan (I do not know whether there was or was not a person with a gun, only that there were no other sightings). However, the world of Twitter quickly spawned multiple assumptions, accusations and rehashing of events from April 16, 2007 (in which 32 members of Virginia Tech were killed).
This has really made me think about what that day would have been like had Twitter existed or social media been as widespread as it is today. What would the messages have been? We are on the verge of the traditional media becoming obsolete because the people facing these incidents have social media on their side and can spread the message faster than anyone else. So what kind of responsibility should come from this? Many people complain that the media does not do a good job of remaining unbiased. What I witnessed in the Twitterverse was the same scenario in many ways.
With all of the positive and negative impacts that social media has played in the world this past year (Egypt, London, and even a mall in Cleveland), what do you think is our responsibility? I challenge people to REthink before they (RE:)tweet.