This social media journalist turned away from social during the Las Vegas shooting

Tory Starr

As the jugglers, dancers, acrobats and actors of the new show Absinthe took their final curtain call on Sunday night from a circus tent in front of Caesar’s Palace, I was desperately trying to make an informed decision despite confusing and contradictory texts, tweets, posts, push notifications and Snaps.

It had been about 10 minutes since my sister in law nudged me in the dark of the circus tent, showing me the dozens of texts pushing to the lock screen of her phone. “Are you OK?” “What the hell is happening there?” We were in Vegas for a wedding Saturday night; my husband, his twin brother and my sister-in-law and I had all decided to stay a second night to explore the Strip and see a show. Our rooms were on the 27th floor of Mandalay Bay Casino.

We were instructed to “shelter in place” after the 10pm showing of “Absinthe” in front of Caesar’s Palace. (Photo: Tory Starr)

Now alerted that something scary was happening outside the theater, I turned to first Twitter, then Facebook, then Snapchat to try to figure out what of the dozens of facts coming at me were the truth. My family, sitting next to me, all had completely different methods of collecting information — my husband stayed on the breaking news page of WSJ.com, my Toronto-based brother-in-law read updates from the CBC.

After about 90 seconds scrolling Twitter, seeing reports of shooters in the New York, New York Casino, explosives on the Strip, and multiple gunmen on the loose, I was confused and terrified. The social verification techniques that I’ve taught newsrooms and journalists back at the public media station in Boston weren’t possible for me to do in seconds, much less from my phone with a rapidly dwindling battery. At 11:20pm, I made a quick decision about what to platform to use and what to believe.

The single source I would use that night was my sister, texting from her home in Seattle.

From her perch in front of a TV and computer, my sister was the first to tell me that it appeared as if the threat was coming from a single location back at our hotel, and that there didn’t seem to be anything to the rumors of multiple gunmen. She was the person who instructed me to stay put, that I would be safer in a location with security rather than on my own on the Strip. This ran counter to my instinct to get out of a tent full of drunk theater-goers with virtually no places to hide or seek cover (did I mention there were no bathrooms?).

As someone that has long preached the power of social media to be helpful, not hurtful, in times of crisis, my experience on Sunday night has given me pause. There were many advantages social platforms brought that night: I marked myself “safe” on Facebook, reaching more family and friends in a minute than I would be able to do in hours of texting and calling. I used Twitter on Monday morning to get updates on when Mandalay was reopening and when we could safely return to collect our things. I crowdsourced my Twitter followers to learn more about giving blood.

But at the critical moment I needed the facts, I didn’t get them through social media.

Here’s what citizens need in times of crises: They need journalists, versed in social media verification and reporting, helping the masses sort through the mess of information. They need clear, editorial voices on every platform that they can trust.

Most important, it is necessary for social platforms to elevate these respected voices in times of crisis so news consumers and citizens in danger can make informed decisions. We need journalists and editors, not a Global Security Operations Center, tasked to Facebook’s Safety Check page to identify scammers; we need Reddit and 4Chan journalists with the platform clout to clearly mark false information for all users; we need a human editor on Twitter creating lists of verified journalists covering breaking news situations.

I’m sure there were some great journalists doing exactly this on Twitter when I was desperately searching for it on Sunday night — but I didn’t have the presence of mind to seek them out. It would have been extremely helpful if Twitter had sent me a push notification to a list of all the verified journalists or newsrooms debunking false claims on the platform.

(Since Sunday night, there has been great work done to debunk rumors and misinformation on social media: my favorites are On the Media’s Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook (Active Shooter Edition), and @firstdraftnews, @newsroom and @cwarzel on Twitter.)

It’s high time journalists realize that a true commitment to these tasks is necessary and vital to public information, and high time for newsrooms to resource it properly. Social platforms have come a long way in the past year in realizing the fundamental need for trained, human editors — as well as their own inability to fulfill this need with bots or algorithms.

The call is clear. The only question remains is who will lead the way. Until then, I’ll continue to put my life in my sister’s hands.

Tory Starr

Written by

Director of Social Media at @WGBH in Boston.

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