Two weeks ago, a rumour appeared on Facebook alleging that a serial killer was running amok in the Queen City. The message asserted that the First Nations chiefs were informed by the Regina City Police that a serial killer was responsible for the murders of two First Nations women. An investigation is currently examining the murder of one woman in 2005 and another just this year. They are also investigating the disappearance of three First Nations women and one Caucasian woman. The Facebook post alleged that Regina Police Services would not inform the public until after Grey Cup.
Last Monday, Regina City Police stated on Facebook that serial killer rumours were inconclusive and may have had origins in discussions with First Nations chiefs about the murdered women. Police also said there no proof that the murders or disappearances were related. They stressed that it was preposterous that they would hesitate to warn the public about such a threat. Their Facebook post stated that “[i]f the Regina Police Service felt there was an imminent threat to public safety we would issue a warning immediately.”
There definitely are positive aspects to social media, especially the real time transmission of important events, such as the Arab Spring. Citizens can use social media as a check against abusive law enforcement. However, rumours, like the aforementioned serial killer one, do represent a real danger present from social media and can work against the public betterment by projecting fear. Regina Police Services were quick and right to respond to the rumours traversing Facebook. While the possibility of a serial killer was not ruled out, the Police emphasized that they needed more evidence before the public could be warned against such a threat. This is one of the central issues with social media; stories being transmitted in real time means that unfinished or developing affairs risk becoming a finished product.
Yet, what is most disconcerting about social media fear mongering is that the truth may not be followed up on. An individual who hears an untrue rumour from Facebook or Twitter may react in that moment and not check for updates. In the case of serial killer rumours, some people may feel it necessary to take action into their own hands or jump to conclusions. Both situations have the potential to end in tragedy. Suspicions can be heightened, accusations can be thrown, and mob mentalities can develop. Last September, the Otago Daily Times interviewed a New Zealand sociologist who maintained that mass hysteria could be created from social media. He emphasized that the scale of mass hysteria created by social media could potentially rival that of the panic that gripped the people of Salem and their witch phobia in the seventeenth century. However with more people connected around the world via social media, the damage caused by mass hysteria could be much greater.
What can be done about fearful, yet unconfirmed rumours floating around on social media? Active and critical social media users should immediately tweet or Facebook in response to such posts. They should emphasize that the story is developing, evidence is shoddy, or that the rumour is unconfirmed and individuals should wait before reacting. They should emphasize very strongly that the truth behind any posting be confirmed before any action is taken. Indeed, they should strive to avoid unwarranted mass panic or destructive actions.
The Following news stories were consulted in the writing of this Op-Ed.