Rumor Control: Think before you hit the ‘share’ button

At one time, the policy in most newsrooms was NOT to report on bomb threats, or other threats deemed uncredible by law enforcement or administrators of the threatened facility. The idea was to avoid giving the attention often craved by those who would do such a thing, if, indeed, no one was ever in any real danger.

Changes in technology and culture have altered that policy, however. Today, we find ourselves forced to report on non-events simply to tame the unfounded panic spreading on social media.

Tuesday morning, Parkersburg High School Principal Kenny DeMoss had to put the school in a “code yellow” lockdown — students were kept inside their classrooms, but all other operations remained normal — because of threats made online. In fact, it turned out those threats had been posted on social media by someone believed to be using a fake account.

“During this time, there was never a threat on campus,” DeMoss said. “We’ve no proof of a weapon or a threat. It’s a fake account. We do take all threats seriously, and when the person responsible is found they’ll be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, I promise you that.”

Meanwhile, rumors and exaggerations had already spread across social media to the point that some parents were, shall we say, worked up. The folks who clicked share or otherwise spread fear rather than stopping to think whether they were doing more harm than good helped do the work of the anonymous threat-poster. If the idea was to create a panic, they made sure it happened.

It is not the first time we have found ourselves in the newsroom explaining a non-event to help calm fears. In late September, a lockdown drill and planned drug sweep of one floor of the school by law enforcement prompted a social media panic that threats had been made against the school and students.

For goodness sake, ladies and gentlemen, use social media more responsibly. Do not spread rumors if you are uncertain of their validity. Certainly there are some who intentionally spread falsehoods or half-truths. Those people should be ashamed of themselves.

Forget about the change it has meant in newsrooms, consider for a moment what it means for administrators and law enforcement. Because of the fuss, extra law enforcement officers had to be brought onto PHS’s campus “to be a more visible presence.” Teachers had to deal with an 80-minute “cautionary lockdown.”

Think before you share something online (or in person). There are too many real threats in this world to be creating such a mess over the fake ones.