The latest ‘terrorist’ attack in Munich was a very negative test for use of social media during an emergency.
While it is inevitable that individual citizens will report just what they see, without getting the entire picture, the German Police contributed to spreading undue panic and actually played in the ends of terrorism, even if there may eventually be no connection with it.
At 18.04 Police issued warnings in English asking people to avoid public areas because of gunfire.
At 18.15 Police issued a statement on their Facebook page reporting that witnesses saw three different individuals with firearms; this is when they started circulating unconfirmed information…
At 18.23 Police said there were unconfirmed reports of more violence and possible gunfire in the city center, asking people to avoid public areas as the situation was unclear.
At 18:35 Police issued a message on Twitter encouraging people to stay away from the shopping center and to remain in their homes.
At 7:13 Police asked that no photographs or videos of the police operations be taken or put online.
At 7:41 Police urged people to avoid public places in Munich as the situation was still very unclear and the whereabouts of the alleged shooter or shooters was unknown.
From this point, there was a crescendo of alarmist police reports, while German media were stating that Munich police had described the situation as “an acute terror threat.”
It took up to 6 hours to admit that the suspect was thought to be an 18-year-old German-Iranian citizen who had lived in Munich for some time. Police had shot at him before he apparently turned his own gun on himself. The motive for the attack remained “unclear,” and the reason for a search for “up to three suspects” was a false lead on two potential suspects, who turned out to have nothing to do with the attack.
Meanwhile, there had be a race among world leaders to share sympathy for Germany, which was implied to be under an Islamic terrorist attack…
The German Police should have learned from the Boston Police how to handle cases like this! Even in that occasion there was predominat false information circulating, but without police endorsement. Only 20% of information in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing was true (see my previous post).
A full description of the Munich sequence can be found at the Deutch Welle blog.