The bomb that wasn’t (updated)

For a while today, Twitter lit up with speculation about a couple of bombs in Aldgate, East London – rumours that swirled around long after the Metropolitan Police had declared the incident a false alarm.

The scare was fuelled by tweets from those inside the security cordon, such as those from consumer affairs journalist, Sarah Modlock, who reported that there were “two IEDs, one in car, one in phone box. One dealt with and one being dealt with. Two roads reopened.”

Modlock has lots of very plausible detail, some of it from “mates” at the Royal Bank 0f Scotland, whose office she said was being targeted by the attack. “I just said what came up here as we were told – no spin,” she said, after the all-clear was given.

So… (i) Modlock is in her office desperate for information about what is happening out on the streets; (ii) she is picking up rumours and passing them on; (iii) her ‘privileged’ position within the evacuated zone gives her reports credibility – weak signals become strong ones.

These feedback loops are not new to social media. Something very similar happened when Katrina hit New Orleans and the media covered, as fact, an orgy of violence in the Superdome, where many of the city’s poorest and most disadvantaged citizens were sheltering.

Extremely graphic tales of how the poor were raping and murdering one another (30-40 bodies in the convention centre’s freezer, for example) turned out to be vastly exaggerated. Few of the reports of violence were later confirmed (though police are now known to have executed civilians).

According to Ed Bush, a public affairs official for the Louisiana National Guard, those inside the centre were hearing reports of atrocities from the media. They were then telling these stories back to journalists, creating a perfect storm of misinformation.

A lot of them had AM radios, and they would listen to news reports that talked about the dead bodies at the Superdome, and the murders in the bathrooms of the Superdome, and the babies being raped at the Superdome and it would create terrible panic. I would have to try and convince them that no, it wasn’t happening.

The Dome, of course, was characterised by information scarcity – “Cell phones didn’t work, the arena’s public address system wouldn’t run on generator power, and the law enforcement on hand was reduced to talking to the 20,000 evacuees using bullhorns and a lot of legwork.”

In contrast, Twitter (plus the rest of the social media) multiplies connections (absent a loss of power/Internet etc.). So, in a more complex emergency than today’s, can we expect denser networks, with the potential they allow for correction and multiple points of view, to provide a quicker or more tortuous route to the truth?

Update: According to the Sun:

Fake improvised explosive devices made up of artillery shell casings, mobile phones and Plasticine were spotted in the Suzuki Ignis car.

But it turned out the men, who work for a legitimate counter-terrorism firm, had just been showing them to business leaders in the Square Mile to warn of the dangers…

A police source said: “They couldn’t have picked a worse day. We will be having strong words with them over their stupidity.”

Ooops. (If true, of course. Maybe the Met could, y’know, put a statement on its website.)