It was the cold terror — the terror of the Fort Lauderdale airport, of Pulse nightclub, of Sandy Hook Elementary School — all over again, said the Twitter user known as AlexisP305, his message as much of a shout as printed words can be: “You can hear the gunshots. Thank u god we made it out alive. #DolphinMallShooting.”
He wasn’t the only one screaming his fear and alarm into cyberspace on Saturday night. “I’m stuck inside dolphin mall(Ross), there’s one shooter inside. Please send help,” pleaded another. On Facebook, somebody else — breathlessly holed up in a mall restaurant — described his flight: “We saw everyone running and I heard what sounded like rapid fire. I grabbed my 8-year-old son, my wife grabbed my daughter, and we started running for safety.”
Many attached shaky, almost unwatchable video of the flight from the mall, mostly showing feet frantically pounding down steps out of stores and into parking lots. Other even attached a photo of the gunfight to their tweets, a picture of a paunchy, bald man firing his rifle at a target above him somewhere in the mall.
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Their fears were genuine. The shooting and the gunman weren’t. About two hours after the first report of gunfire inside the Dolphin Mall at 9:07 p.m., Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez told reporters that police had declared the story the mother of all false alarms.
“Nothing that these people are saying is the truth,” said Lopez, in whose tiny West Miami-Dade city the mall is located. “There’s no attacker here, much less any wounded.”
And that photo? Genuine enough — but what it showed was a safety drill inside the mall several years back.
Yet the announcements of the mayor and Miami-Dade police that the mall was safe did nothing to calm the scene, either on the streets outside, which were still jammed with the vehicles of customers frantically trying to escape the imaginary slaughter, or on social media, which for hours echoed with tweets and retweets of a terrifying shootout.
More than a few threatened to escalate the situation. Friends of AlexisP305, the young man who reported hearing gunshots as he fled the mall, taunted him on Instagram for not standing his ground. “Stop being a b---- and start being a hero,” demanded one. Said another: “You GOTTA start exercising your 2nd amendment rights. Get you a few dope a-- holsters & carry your s---.”
Even as the mall prepared to reopen at 11 a.m. Sunday, some people were still unconvinced they’d had a foot or maybe more in the grave the night before. “What happen at dolphin mall had me shook...I could have gotten killed,” shuddered Twitter’s Uma. Added Monica_Lauren13: “Regardless of whether or not there was a shooter, being at Dolphin Mall tonight was terrifying between everyone running & just general panic.”
The Dolphin Mall’s episode of needless panic is far from the first time that the weird mutual reinforcement of social media and events on the ground have reshaped reality. The shootings that took five lives at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January were real, but they lasted only about 90 seconds — but for another three hours, panicked crowds surged from one terminal to another as social media triggered false reports of another gunman.
Imaginary social media stories about gunmen panicked Los Angeles International Airport earlier this year, and Twitter tales of imaginary immigration roundups freaked out some Miami neighborhoods.
And just a couple of months ago the restaurant-going population of Akron, Ohio, went into public despair when the Twitterverse reported that Luigi’s, the city’s beloved late-night pizza joint, was closing. “Akron is dead,” said one broken-hearted Facebook user. Well, not quite: It turned out that the Luigi’s that was shutting down was in Scotland.
Academics who have studied the pathologies of social media say that Twitter and the rest are simply magnifying human behavior that’s been around a long time. Urban legends — lurid if dubious tales of catastrophe, like the Kentucky fried rat? — have been around for decades.
“But the big difference between urban legends and these social media contagions is that the stories don’t just pass to one or two people at a time, over a period of months or years,” said Karen North, a communication professor at the University of Southern California. “Now they can be posted to a virtually unlimited audience and spread virally, in moments. The thing feeds on itself.”
That’s benign when the subject is a cat video. But Sherry Towers of Arizona State University’s Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center says that social media loves nothing so much as blood and guts.
“It’s the same thing as urban legends,” she said. “We as humans like a lurid story. In some weird way, it’s like a form of entertainment. We have an interest in these kind of stories that goes well beyond the simple need for information.”
And she doesn’t see that changing.
“With social media,” Towers said gloomily, “what you see is pretty much what you’re going to get.”