Editor’s Note: From our friends and colleagues at the Iowa State Daily, we offer you this excellent story about the hostage situation at Marinette High School in Marinette, Wisconsin and about the advantages and pitfalls of gathering information through social media. It was originally published November 30. And as a companion to this piece, we also recommend that you read A plea to journalists: tread carefully in Marinette by Jessica Opoien, Editor in Chief of the Daily.
-Jim Malewitz, assistant to the editor, IowaWatch.org
Emily Zimmerman knew things weren’t right in her hometown of Marinette, Wis., on Monday afternoon as soon as she checked Facebook.
Zimmerman, senior in biology, checked the social media site on her cell phone while waiting for the CyRide to take her home in Ames.
“Some people I’m friends with back home updated their statuses and there was mention of, ‘Hope no one was hurt. Praying for Marinette High School,’ and to that effect,” she said. “That’s when a red flag went off in my mind.”
Zimmerman’s younger sister is a freshman at the high school, where a 15-year-old male held a classroom of 24 students and one teacher hostage Monday.
“As soon as I saw the statuses, I texted my sister a few times, but she didn’t respond,” Zimmerman said. “I checked her Facebook … I called my parents. It was about 30 minutes until I knew what actually happened.”
Most of the major networks did not pick up the story until 8 p.m., Zimmerman said, causing her to rely heavily on Facebook for updated information on the situation unfolding more than 450 miles away.
“Initially, [Facebook] was the only thing [at Iowa State] to get information,” Zimmerman said. “I didn’t have access to local news updates. Facebook was really helpful. People I’m friends with who are still students at the high school had the most frequent updates about what was going on.”
But not everything Zimmerman read was reliable.
“There were a lot of speculation about who was [in the classroom] and who wasn’t,” she said.
The rumors didn’t stop there.
“One girl’s Facebook status said she hoped everything was OK,” Zimmerman said. “But the comments on her status were that people has been shot — students had been shot. I was texting friends that had family back home and they said the teacher had been shot.”
Dr. Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism, said the use of social media in crisis has its good and bad points.
“If you’re in an emergency situation, texting or texting to Facebook can actually help in a rescue,” Bugeja said. “From a journalism perspective … you can have false reports go viral in a matter of minutes. You don’t get a ‘smart mob’ effect. … What you get is a ‘dumb mob’ effect — meaning you spread false information as if it were real. In an emergency situation that can be catastrophic because it takes away the power of the police and maybe forces others to believe a situation is more dire than it is.”
Marinette Police Chief Jeffrey Skorik witnessed these effects firsthand when the conflicting reports on the Internet complicated Marinette authorities’ message to the public.
“It made it more difficult to keep the public and parents calm,” Skorik said. “We’re telling them that there are certain things we know and are able to confirm, and they’re saying they saw on Facebook that this has happened. But it isn’t accurate. It causes a challenge for us who are trying to get the proper message out and be clear and concise. It’s tough battling social media because it’s so pervasive and moves so quickly.”
The Marinette Police Department does not have an officer to manage social media because of the agency’s small size, Skorik said. Instead, the department holds press briefings to release official information to the public.
“You had to take everything you read [on Facebook] with a grain of salt,” Zimmerman said.
Tim Lewis, graduate student in architecture, found out about the situation in his hometown via text message from his mother. Rather than using social media as a source, his mother gave him updates throughout the night as she saw them on the local news.
“I knew the facts that anyone else would actually know,” Lewis said. “I didn’t get mixed up in the rumors that way.”
Lee Wilkins, professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said rumors and false information happen because nobody verifies messages on social networking sites.
“Nobody verifies what people say on Facebook,” Wilkins said. “It’s a lot like a kid’s game telephone, where you sit in a circle and one person says something into one person’s ear and then the next person whispers what they thought that person said to the next person and you go all the way around the circle. The last person says out loud what he or she thinks they heard and compares it to what the first person heard.
“Facebook is a lot like that,” she said. “People do things that are incomplete. They don’t bother to verify facts — they’re just repeating what someone told them. … They don’t have any independent evidence that it is true.”
Despite the confusion and chaos of Monday, Zimmerman said she is thankful the event is over in Marinette. Her sister told Zimmerman there has been a lot of support for the family of the gunman, and for the students and teacher involved.
“There has been an effort using Facebook to get the high school students back together as a community … and to help move forward,” Zimmerman said.