How rumours about the Sydney siege spread on social media

In the age of social media, misinformation travels rapidly around the globe. AAP

It has become one of the hallmarks of the news now. Whenever there is a dramatic event, social media instantly comes alive with comment and conjecture as facts vie for attention with fiction. Alongside the chatter on social media are journalists rushing to report on the news as it happens, seizing on any tidbit of information.

The 16-hour siege at the Lindt cafe in central Sydney was no different. How the story unfolded is emblematic of the messy, chaotic and confusing nature of news today. Real-time media turns a crisis into a drama as officials, journalists and citizens all chime in with something to say, even though there tends to be a dearth of reliable information.

For better or worse, Twitter serves as the public square where every twist and turn is described, discussed and dissected. While misinformation is swiftly shot down online, it also tends to spread faster and further than the truth.

Hearsay can gain the status of truth as a message is tweeted and retweeted, earning credibility through repetition. In the hours after the start of the siege, there were false reports of the closure of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and of police blocking mobile phone signals within the press and on social media.

Anxiety fuels rumours

Breaking news provides an ideal breeding ground for rumours. In a vacuum of facts, scraps of information take on a greater importance – moreso when people are in a heightened state of anxiety, such as during the Sydney siege. But it is too easy to dismiss rumours as irrational acts by people with no thought to the consequences.

In their classic 1947 text, The Psychology of Rumor, Gordon Allport and Leo Postman showed how rumours arise in situations that are important but where information is ambiguous. Under such circumstances, people will grasp at anything that can help them understand what is happening.

Rumours become part of what Japanese-American psychologist Tamotsu Shibutani described as improvised news. It is a way of trying to make sense of things that challenge the everyday.

Shocking events such as the Sydney siege are views through an individual’s personal lens but that view is shaped by what else is in the public consciousness. It is hardly surprising that some concluded the attack was linked to Islamic extremism when a banner with Arabic writing appeared in the window of the Lindt café. Headlines across the world have been full of talk about Islamic State and the threat of homegrown extremism.

People were primed to jump to conclusions and speculate about the causes of the attack. There was similar speculation about the shooter following the attack on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in Canada in October. The conditions have to be right for an idea to catch on, especially on social media, much as a drought can create the circumstances for a spark to ignite a forest fire.

Be mindful

Given that breaking news fosters fertile ground for rumours, half-truth and lies to spread like wildfire, there is an imperative for all of us to be mindful of what we hear, see and read before hitting that retweet button.

The exchanges on social media are conversations about information in flux. At times, it will be people collectively trying to figure out what happened and who was responsible. Some of it will be true, but some of it will inevitably be wrong.

Social media is the new public square where people get together to talk about the news. In the square there are some in the know. Others are sharing hopes or fears. Others have come there for emotional support. Some just want to be part of something bigger.

All this chatter is part of the news now. It is part of a media space where the news is improvised, and a hodgepodge of real-time facts, fears and fictions.