Yesterday’s German Bomb Scare Teaches Important Social Media Lesson

New rule: unless you obtain information from an official press release, figure of authority, within/preceding/following a sentence containing the word ‘confirmed’, or as an eye witness, do not post it on social media.

This can be said immediately after any breaking news event in the age of citizen journalism, but yesterday’s bomb scare in Hannover, Germany underscores its necessity.

Haven’t heard about what happened? I don’t blame you. Once the facts settled, the incident barely qualified for front page real estate. During a two-hour period on Twitter, however, you would have thought the whole city was ablaze.

Ninety minutes before Germany were to play the Netherlands in an international soccer friendly, German police called for the match’s suspension and ordered a swift evacuation of the stadium following “intelligence that someone wanted to set off an explosive device inside the stadium,” according to police chief Volker Kluwe. Those were the only concrete facts at the time.

Photo: Yahoo News

Twitter users, meanwhile, crafted one hell of a fiction.

Within 15 minutes, the narrative went something like this: a bomb was supposed to go off in the stands, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to be present, sending panicked fans in a stampede rush towards the exits where an ambulance packed full of explosives was to detonate in tandem with further bombs at another stadium in the city that was hosting a concert, as well as Hannover’s central train station. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lives were at immediate risk.

You couldn’t write a more horrifying Hollywood script – and yet a Hollywood script would have held more substance.

Just over two hours after the match was cancelled, Lower-Saxony (where Hannover is located) Interior Minister Boris Pistorius – what a name, by the way – announced at a press conference that no explosives had been found and no arrests had been made. As of this writing, that remains the most recent development of this story. The bomb-strapped ambulance that was trending on Twitter turned out to be filled with nothing more than false reports and misinformation.

Perhaps the most significant takeaway is that this incident revealed the quandary of speaking your mind when it’s no longer just your friends and family listening, but the entire world.

Photo: Yahoo News

Look, I get people are on edge right now. Matters of public safety across Europe in light of last week’s attacks in Paris should be approached with utmost urgency and tenacity. And they were – by the people whose action and commentary was warranted. Event organizers, local media, and police did an exceptional job handling a situation that could have been unnecessarily catastrophic had the tweets of layman Twitter journalists dictated the behaviour of 43,000 frenzied people last night.

So please forgo the glory of being the first of your friends to publish something on Facebook and consider that spreading rumours and speculation makes these professionals’ jobs incredibly more difficult.

The past week has taught us a lot about social media’s utility during breaking news, and how it mirrors our cursory participation in global issues; about the empathy gap that dictates our sympathy, if adding a flag filter to your profile picture is a sincere expression of support, and that people confuse owning a Twitter account with having a journalism degree.

Most pressing to the latter point, but relevant to all, it would certainly be wise to exercise some measured patience publishing armchair reactions to issues with complexities that far exceed a few strokes on a keyboard.

One thing is always true: it’s better to be second and get it right than first to get it wrong.