TERROR BY SOCIAL MEDIA

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A week ago last night I was running for my life on the streets of Paris. Only later did I know I was in no imminent danger. I had been dining in a restaurant half a mile from the nearest attack, Bataclan concert hall but at the time I didn’t know that. Together with everyone else on the streets of Paris last Friday I was running, not from an actual threat but from the fear of an unknown threat and that fear was based not on fact but on rumour, conjecture and supposition.

I have just finished my dinner and as I leave the restaurant my mobile phone pings in my pocket. It is about a quarter to ten. It’s a fine, mild evening and, as is my usual routine when in Paris (a city I never pass up the chance to spend time either for itself or en route to somewhere else) I plan to jump on a Paris Velib – the city’s vastly superior version of London’s Boris Bikes – and explore the city by night. Paris is a wonderful city to explore by bike. Routes are well marked, in many streets bikes have priority over cars and, most of all, the city feels safe and friendly.

But as I read the first of my messages I know there’ll be no bicycle adventure tonight.

“Are you still in Paris?” reads the message from my friend.

“Oui”

“I’m glad you’ve answered – I’m not happy you’re in Paris, but I’m happy you’ve answered”

“What’s wrong with Paris? Did you think I’d been abducted? {cheeky wink Emoji face}

“You’re in the middle of a major terrorist attack – At least 30 dead – 100 people taken hostage – It’s still ongoing.”

“Where? You’re kidding me”

“Centre of Paris, All over the centre of Paris. Where are you?”

“Oh shit! Centre of Paris.”

I am standing in the middle of a street lined with restaurants. On a mild Friday night they are packed inside and out and it is, superficially at least, a happy, typical Parisian scene. Only now do I realise that there is an unrest beginning to stir as others start to receive text messages like mine.

“35 dead now – shootings at a restaurant”

‘Two restaurants targeted”

“Suicide bombers at the Stade de France”

“The President is involved”

“Now the Bataclan concert hall”

The messages are coming faster than I can reply as my friend recounts what he is seeing on the television news.

“Get indoors, Simon, just get indoors”

I am running now but my apartment is half a mile away. Others too are leaving tables, frantically phoning, settling their bills and running. What should I do? Take cover in a restaurant? But restaurants are being targeted.

“Now some major shopping centre has been hit”

“Simon, there are many coordinated attacks. It’s major”

“11 dead in a restaurant – 30 at the concert hall”

“Now a shooting at the Pompidou Centre”

I am just a block away from The Pompidou, unsure if I should keep running – is it safe to be on the street? Should I take the metro – will that be safe? Or hail a cab? I’m heading towards Les Halles.

“Now there’s been an attack at Les Halles”

I am scared now, really scared because the worst kind of fear is of the unknown. Who am I running from, what am I running from, who can tell me where I should go? I know Paris well but not at a canter, not dodging others as they hurry in every direction, randomly as they resolve their purpose and route on the hoof, focussed only on themselves and their own safety. As I run, then pause for breath then run again, my phone in my hand checking my messages and checking the map for my location I become disorientated, fear clouding my perception of North, South, East or West.

“Where are you? Now 60 are dead”

“I’m running”

“Get off the street”

***

In the end I reach my apartment having seen and heard no violence, dodging other Parisians and tourists as they come to terms with their own fear, watching the streets grow perceptibly quieter at every turn.

“I’m indoors. I’m safe.”

“Thank God. xxx”

As I digest what is happening via the BBC I realise with a mixture of horror and anger that many of the incidents which were reported as I ran simply did not happen. There were no incidents at The Pompidou centre or Les Halles which would have put me in imminent danger. Social media and the news media’s appetite to keep up the pace of their continuous news feeds conspired to present every rumour, every conjecture as fact until it was proved to be otherwise. People can deal in facts but to hearsay they have no alternative response to panic.

An hour later the news reports that the migrant camp at Calais is ablaze ‘in an apparent revenge attack’. Forty minutes later this is confirmed to be a bogus Twitter report showing pictures of a fire at the camp months earlier. What repercussions will that have caused in a city 100 miles from the real events of the night? What sickness prompts someone to post such phoney information, as if the real events are not quite sensational enough, that after an hour or so they have become old news and there is a need for new intrigue and excitement.

The news anchor becomes increasingly desperate to make sense of a cacophony of hearsay, opinion, assumption and guess work and in the end I give up as she should if she could, without the pressure to maintain a 24 hour news service. I am, by trade, a journalist but I’m old school and prefer to deal only in facts. When I trained in a newsroom the mantra was check, check and check again. Today that mantra might be never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Only tomorrow will we know what really happened.

The next day I, like thousands of others, resolve to make Paris my home, determined not to let terrorists rip the soul out of the city’s streets where her heart beats and her soul flourishes. I visit an old haunt rather than somewhere new, looking for comfortable familiarity and as the best gesture of support to a shaken friend – a city which doesn’t quite know what to do to pick itself up. It’s a restaurant we visited with my mum on the last holiday before she died.

I post a message to that effect on Facebook. It’s an innocent observation, sharing a dearly held memory but in a bizarre twist, the next day I receive a text message from my friend, a priest with whom I share a strong connection to the Middle East where we have several mutual friends.

“It’s all around Bethlehem that your mother was killed in Paris on Friday”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Apparently you posted a message on Facebook about your mum being in Paris before she died. This has been interpreted as meaning she died in the attacks on Friday”

‘They’re saying prayers for you and your mum today”

Mum died in 2009.

Social media has much to commend it. But like all human innovation it is a double edged sword. Nothing can diminish the horror of what happened in Paris on Friday 13 November 2015. But nothing is needed to embellish the facts either. Social media was a vital means for authorities to communicate advice during and after the attacks. Nobody needed the extra fear and panic it was also used to peddle.

And when innocent comments can be so wildly misinterpreted it’s worth remembering that old adage is more pertinent now than ever: Never believe everything you read or as my dear old newspaper editor would bark at us across the news desk, check, check and check again.