Wednesday night’s tragic shooting in Moncton, NB that killed three RCMP officers and injured another two is already highlighting the changing – and deepening – role of social media platforms in in mass-scale events like this one. Tools that are so often used for frivolous status updates and selfies are now being leveraged for front-line communications in an urban war no one in Moncton asked for.
Throughout the night and into Thursday, as local residents and Canadians alike frantically used Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools to either hunker down or get up to speed, news outlets across the country and around the world scrambled to pull together what they knew in hastily-built live blogs, tweet streams and even screen grabs. By midday Thursday, six of the top ten trending hashtags in Canada were directly related to the shootings.
Proceed with caution
At the same time, others warned against divulging too much information for fear the shooter had access to social media. A Facebook page registered to the name of the suspected shooter, Justin Bourque, contained a post that went live around the time the incident began. Two new friends were reportedly added after, suggesting the individual at-large could be monitoring the online chatter via a mobile device and adjusting his actions accordingly. The RCMP asked members of the public to refrain from sharing information on police actions and whereabouts via social media. The request seems to have worked: As of early Thursday afternoon, I was unable to find evidence on either Twitter or Facebook of residents sharing any police-related information, and subsequent mentions deliberately omitted key location information.
The debate highlights the challenges of leveraging social media when there are no real rules for engagement, and best practices – for media, for law enforcement, and for citizens – are still being cobbled together. For its part, the RCMP New Brunswick social media team’s response was textbook. It quickly tweeted warnings to the public, complete with detailed area maps and guidance for staying out of harm’s way. Media outlets with large followings seamlessly integrated this content into their online and broadcast messaging, amplifying the initial message to a larger audience and establishing baselines for consistent communication – such as hashtags, and live-updated URLs – throughout the event.
But the disconnect over what the public should and should not share highlighted the murkiness within which the police were and are operating. In the absence of a universally understood social media framework, the result was a chaotic mix of heroic experiments and a lot of non-value-added noise, including misplaced condolence messages, and arguments over gun control. None of this came remotely close to lowering the online volume in and around the Moncton tragedy, but it should prompt additional discussion once the dust settles. Specifically, police forces will need to update their best practices around how the public can help during crisis situations. Presumably, the result will be clearly defined advice for the public around what to share, when to share it, and when it might make more sense for citizens to simply go silent and let the police do what they need to do.
Social meets conventional
Conventional media outlets aren’t the only ones chasing big stories these days. Twitter, Facebook and other social media services know this, and have been rapidly updating their services to make sharing easier. The growing robustness of social media platforms puts ever increasing information-gathering and distributing power into the hands of everyday citizens, who often find themselves on the front lines alongside traditional journalists.
Whoever’s doing the information-gathering, the business of social media depends on maximizing audience engagement – which won’t happen unless content can be packaged and distributed with minimal friction. As much as no one ever wants anything like this to play out in their or anyone else’s backyard, let’s not delude ourselves into believing the major social media and web services providers aren’t using the Moncton tragedy as a learning opportunity. That next wave of updates to your favourite social media site may very well spring from what’s happening right now. This could include tools to assemble and publish groups of tweets, curate content from multiple sources and then drag-and-drop edit it into publishable packages, and more seamlessly embed the results across other platforms.
However today’s social media platforms continue to evolve, it’s clear they don’t – and won’t – exist in a bubble. The business of social media doesn’t revolve as much around replacing conventional media as it does around complementing it. Some of the most innovative community-focused messaging during crises like this one are initiated by traditional journalists working for news outlets that, according to conventional wisdom, are most threatened by the rise of social media.
Don’t believe it. The future of social media platforms is hybrid, and the rules are still being worked out, in real-time, both on and far beyond the streets of Moncton.
Did all of this technology save lives? We may never know. But the fact that so many stakeholders turned to social media and used it in this manner suggests another tipping point in the brief yet tumultuous history of social media was reached in Moncton last night.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. email@example.com