The Oxford Circus incident: Social media gone mad?

Two guys have a disagreement on a crowded tube platform, this disagreement turns into a fight, the fight gets the tube platform evacuated and in the ensuing evacuation the station itself is evacuated.

One person thinks its terrorism and says so to another, rumours sweep through the evacuated passengers who do as any normal individuals would when faced with the onset of death: they run.

Tweets begin to surface, an online article incorrectly references past events as current, an army of social media junkies not in full possession of the facts begin to comment spreading the incorrect information online.

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The mail’s report would be later found to be out of date

The police are called to deal with an emerging situation and respond with armed officers. Scattered reports of gunfire begin to surface as a result, with the police seemingly dumbfounded about the real facts of the situation.

It sounds like a comedy of errors, punctuated by disinformation, but this was Friday night and this was Oxford Circus tube. Two men eventually handed themselves into police after a public appeal for witnesses to the incident, but by then the damage had already been illustrated. As any tube commuter will tell you, Oxford Circus station is a nightmare at the best of times, but on Friday it became a scene not out of place in an action movie.

A couple of people, in concert with a few poorly judged social media entries had caused a supposed terrorist incident.

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An example of an innacurate tweet

We live in a time where what people do and say online has more ramifications than ever. A misplaced social media post can cause an international controversy, stop a person from getting a job even topple a president if incorrectly tweeted.

So what do we do to stop this sort of incident from happening again? Well the simple answer is: nothing. We can’t be seen to do anything that impinges on the rights of individuals to express their opinions & observations, no matter how misguided or inaccurate those opinions or observations may be.

There is one thing we can do that will capitalise on this incident that will stop it from occurring again. Talk about it. Raise awareness and a build a consensus of opinion that a) people should be more responsible when they post something on social media and b) that the government should do more to prevent terrorism related hysteria through the use of technology.

Irresponsibility on social media is nothing new, people regularly say and do things online that they later go on to regret (usually the result of alcohol) or delete. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but in todays social media orientated age, the hindsight window has become smaller and smaller. Think to your own social media usage and chances are you will find something you’ve posted that you regret.

I’m not saying be completely responsible but think before you tweet, as Olly Murs has found out when he was called out by Piers Morgan over tweets posted at the time of the incident.

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Murs was forced to defend his tweets, which pointed to a terrorist incident

If the authorities and tube users in London were in possession of the full facts from the outset then the likelihood of this sort of incident occurring would decrease dramatically. It could have been as simple as a speaker system in Oxford street reassuring commuters that there was no danger.

As the amount of information we can access has grown, so has the amount of disinformation that can potentially be made available to us with one click.

I know what you’ll say to me: People are smart, they know what is real and what is fake. Yes a person is smart and can think for themselves, but a group of people are dumb animals that move in herds. You see it on the trains when a platform is announced: people immediately flock to the platform even though it might not be their train. If a person runs away from an incident, people run, thoughts are misplaced and before you know it you have mass hysteria.

How do we respond to this? Simple, we use information in the right way. Instead of proliferating it as we have done with the internet and social media, we encourage a climate which favours focussed information gathering rather than click bait.

It could be as simple as an advertising campaign by the social media and search engine companies, something which encourages social responsibility in the same way that gambling adverts now have to carry the responsible gambling message, internet websites and social media could do the same.

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GambleAwares campaign has been shown to reduce instances of problem gambling: could something similar be done on social media?

Regulation of social media is and can be easily spun as censorship, contravening the aforementioned freedom of speech. However if the social media and internet industry voluntarily signs up to a commitment to place responsibility messages at the heart of their offering, then social media can grow up and be seen as the responsible arm of a free and independent people.

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Should we encourage social responsibility on social media?

It’s a win-win for the social media and internet industries, which are increasingly being seen as harbingers of disinformation and stupidity that disseminate information when ever they want and with no checking system. This sort of charter could end that perception and negate the need for increased regulation of social media.

One thing is for sure, without an effective deterrent social media will become the archetypal ‘boy who cried wolf’ and there is a high chance that if such an attack were real, people would ignore it entirely.

More casualties would be the likely result and any subsequent investigation would be hampered by the amount of disinformation online. We must not allow that to happen, we need to act now while the incident is fresh in people’s minds.

As with anything it begins and ends with you. You are the catalyst that can cause this change, simply by being more socially aware.

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