Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Moncton Shooting and Social Media

During the events of June 4-6 in Moncton I was one of those heavily involved in social media, following and posting to several Facebook threads, Twitter feeds, and the official Reddit thread, as well as monitoring the police radio scanner and updating my Moncton Free Press web site (which itself received record traffic during the event).

The bulk of the activity that I observed took place on the NewsChaser Facebook pages - one in Moncton proper, and one in Shediac-Cap Pelé (Newschaser has41K members, and gained 6K members over the last few days). In Moncton, the moderators consolidated interaction mostly into a single post and thread, deleting new threads that were posted. As a result, a total of almost 9,000 comments were aggregated in this single thread. Near the end of the event, just after the arrest, the moderators then deleted the thread, which I consider an outrage and a tragedy.

Here is the special Moncton Free Press coverage of the event - it's not exactly as it looked over those three days; the system also aggregates all news sources in the city (with the exception of a few paywalled sources) and these were in the centre column; the photos currently displayed in the centre column were displayed in the right-hand column, below 'What You Need to Know'. and were 200px wide.

As you can see, with the exception of the early Viktor Pivovarov photo of the shooter, most of the early 'as it happens' media of the event came from social media. This included a second photo of the shooter with weapons, in addition to an archive photo of him, as well as video of the original gunfight and some harrowing footage from inside a house. Most of the earliest photographs were also distributed over social media; this included photos of the police vehicles (thankfully no bodies), early police activities and photos of the surrounded house on Mountain Road.

Commercial media coverage came later, and when it began it was very good in places. Global News, for example, ran some excellent video coverage, all outlets carried the police press conferences (there were three during the day of June 5 plus more following the arrest and capture of the criminal on June 6). News reports - especially CBC reporters - were live-tweeting numerous spot news photos, until they were told to stop in mid-afternoon June 5.

It should be noted that completely missing from the action was the Moncton Times & Transcript newspaper; even the Halifax Chronicle-Herald lifted its paywall to support the distribution of information, but the T&T remained behind a subscription barrier throughout, and for the most part, was also missing from social media.

The first bit of media I saw was the shootout video, which appeared on the Newschaser page. It remained up throughout the entire incident, but as of today (June 10) it also has been removed from the moderators. It received 60 or so comments - about midway through a number of comments all in a bunch came out saying "take this video down" - I thought that this was suspicious and checked to see who posted them, and was not surprised to find that they were Irving employees (Irving owns the local newspaper).

I don't think that the social media coverage was any less accurate that traditional media, and in some cases was more accurate. There was definitely a double standard; for example, traditional media were telling people not to post police movements on social media (as the police had requested), but were at the same time themselves posting police movements on both traditional broadcast and social media. That's why the picture distribution on the MFP page shows only media pictures from about hour 2 and on - people stopped posting photos, but the media didn't.

In particular, I thought CTV News was quite poor. In the earleier hours of the manhunt they were repeating rumours from social media - rumours that had already been checked and debunked - without qualification or attribution (I tweeted at the time that CTV was spreading misinformation). Their coverage has been pretty much after the fact and from a distance, and so far removed that the announcers have been mispronouncing Bourque's name without correction for days.

Additionally, while it is true that there were rumours reported in social media, these were checked and quickly corrected. One was that the shooter, Justin Bourque, had military special forces training. Given that he was 24, this seemed unlikely, and a number of people who actually knew and worked with him posted to say that, no, he worked at Walmart. But this rumour is still being repeated in the traditional press, albeit, with a response from the Canadian Forces (but why print it at all?).

A number of fake Bourque Facebook pages popped up, but these were discredited the minute they were posted (sometimes sooner), while the authenticity of Bourque's actual page was confirmed. Again, people who knew Bourque were commenting on this item.

An unrelated shooting took place at a local strip club, Angies, at around the same time as the Bourque shooting, which of course led people to wonder whether they were linked. Social metia quickly concluded that they were not linked, though the incident continued to be reported on tradfitional media. To this day I'm not sure whether a shooting at Angies actually occurred (there's no RCMP press release on it) but it's still being reported in traditional media.

Additionally, there was an incident in Oromocto, about 2 hours down the highway, which was noted and quickly confirmed as unrelated by the social media followers; RCMP went out of their way during their news conference to make that point.

It is worth noting that during and after the manhunt there was a lot of overwrought nonsense about the city being in terror and of it "losing its innocence". Certainly the people in the immediate area were a bit jumpy but I didn't see any reports from people saying they were terrified - mostly they were concerned and wanted it to end. As for "losing our innocence", what social media showed me was a city responding in a very grown-up and aware manner to a serious situation. It's not like we haven't had major crime events in the past on these streets - there was the serial killer manhunt in 1989 and the double-police killings in the 1970s.

I would also observe that social media showed a lot of restraint and responsibility. About a quarter of the messages on the 9,000 message thread consisted of people telling other people not to post details about police movements (traditional media amended this request to "don't post anything on social media - I even heard that addition repeated this morning on News 91.9). On the scanner, numerous leads came and went - the poor guy on the highway at Magnetic Hill trying to hitch-hike to Saint John, some guy in the west end with jeans and a red duffel bag, some people walking along the cut-road in Centennial Park - all of these people were investigated, none of them made it to social media, even though the news scanner had some 15K followers before it was shut off.

People stayed out of the way, and people stayed indoors; that's more than could be said of traditional media, which created a mob scene wherever events happened - as for example, when the house on Mountain Road was surrounded. When police asked - via social media - for people to turn on their porch lights, they did.

I think social media in the city respond very well to the event. There's a lot of news today about how the RCMP managed it very well, and how it will become a 'case study'. And it will. But it's more than that. Moncton already had a very rich social media infrastructure, with dedicated groups, established online presences (including my own, but far far more than just that) and a networked and engaged community. he City of Moncton was well out front of any such event with its own Facebook presence, which it used effectively (and continues to use effectively).

In the end, as Christie Blatchford writes,"The dramatic arrest is a remarkable story of what happens when high-tech, an alert citizenry and good old-fashioned balls-out cops work together." By the time he was caught, everyone in the city knew what he looked like. One wonders how much shorter the search would have been had the one photograph showing his face been immediately available on social media, rather than stuffed behind a paywall.

In our city, we are poor in traditional media. The CBC is excellent but under-resourced. The local newspaper is terrible, and worse, behind a paywall (and all the rah rah "heroes" stuff they've done in the last few days won't change the fact that they did nothing to help the community during the event). We've created our own news infrastructure in Moncton, and on June 4-6, it rose to the occasion.


  1. This was an interesting comparison between traditional and social media. In Ontario, we receive two television channels from Atlantic Canada - CBHT-DT and CJCH-DT. Both are, I believe from Halifax. There was also coverage from the local television stations which would obviously be repeating stories from your area. Unless there was "breaking news", we would have to wait until the television station decided it was time to broadcast the story. The stories have a certain element of professional journalism about them in terms of language, shooting angles, focus on the reporter, etc.

    For information right now, I personally monitored the Twitter stream. I didn't think about Facebook. I found the content from Twitter to be raw and written in the first person which no regard for the audience. It was just the facts from the perspective of the author. It was exactly what one would expect from social media.

    Thoughts and concerns still are in my mind about the incident. I can't even begin to come to grips with what it was like to be there.

  2. I'm at the funeral now (starts in a few minutes) - it's a bit surreal, completely quiet in here a*Wesleyan Centre) - it's a bit like the whole community has been enveloped by this

  3. "In the earleier hours of the manhunt they were repeating rumours from social media - rumours that had already been checked and debunked - without qualification or attribution"

    This is a disturbing trend that I'm noticing more and more. If I want to hear a "reporter" parroting Twitter feeds, I'll just sign up for Twitter. I expect mainline media coverage to be at the very least researched and verified, which I guess is now an out of date concept.


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