Last week brought sobering news of terrorist attacks in several different countries. Forty people were killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut, at least 19 were killed in a separate bombing in Baghdad, and at least 129 died in a series of attacks in Paris. In light of these tragedies, news outlets have been offering nonstop coverage of the attacks, while readers worldwide have circulated information and voiced their solidarity for the victims over the Internet. While the Internet has largely been a helpful platform in transmitting information about the crisis, it has also given rise to the spread of misinformation regarding the attacks.
In addition to the attacks in France, Lebanon and Iraq, some viral social media posts are sharing this article about an attack on a university in Kenya, falsely claiming that it occurred on Friday — in reality, the attack happened in April. A French Ambassador responded to a tweet Donald Trump posted after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, and many took Trump’s callous tweet to be a response to Friday’s attacks. Photos of a solidarity march in the streets of France, also from the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, are being used in coverage of this weekend’s events. Perhaps the most deliberate and dangerous of the misinformation being spread is a picture of a Sikh man that has been photoshopped and touted as a photo of one of the Paris attackers. Though misinformation such as this is not uncommon in times of crisis, the digital age has allowed for it to spread instantly and to a wider audience, making it a dangerous vehicle for false information.
In times of chaos like the aftermath of a terrorist attack, those with family or friends in the affected area rely on media coverage and the Internet for information. When that information is unreliable, these people are unable to confirm the safety of their loved ones. Someone with family in Kenya might see the false post about the university attack having occurred on Friday. The man in the photoshopped picture could be targeted by those who have seen it. In the age of the instant-share button, it is all too easy to skip over the specifics of an article, especially in the midst of a global crisis. This is precisely the reason why we must pay extra attention in these situations — in matters of life and death, every detail matters.
This is not to say that the digital age has hindered crisis response. On the contrary: social media has become a key platform for people across the world to ensure each other’s safety and disseminate information almost instantaneously. But there is an inevitable flip side to this capability, and the unfortunate reality is that those who are the most desperate for information in a crisis do not have the time to fact-check, and thus are vulnerable to dangerous misinformation. Everyone has a responsibility to verify the news we spread; when the truth is just a Google search away, misinformation has no excuse surviving as long as it does.
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