COLUMBIA — It seems to have started with a tweet at about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday: “#911 Correction: University Hospital is on lockdown; gunman on the loose.”
For roughly the next hour and a half, retweets, text messages, phone calls and hurried conversations at MU helped the tweet become a full-fledged rumor. At one point, another terrifying rumor took hold via Twitter: that shots had been fired in Virginia Avenue parking garage.
The fact was, there was no gunman on campus. At noon, University Hospital, and then at 12:30 p.m., Truman Veterans Hospital were locked down as a precaution in connection with the search for a suspect in three homicides in Callaway County. Authorities were concerned the gunman in those cases might try to gain access to University Hospital, where a survivor of one of the shootings was being treated.
The lockdown was announced in a variety of ways, including a campus-wide e-mail, a Twitter message and notifications on the MU Alert page and MU homepage. But the campuswide text alert system was never used.
The text message alert is used with discretion, said MU spokesman Christian Basi. He explained that not every e-mail alert is accompanied by a text alert.
When asked why the text alert system was not used, Basi said: “We felt the tools we used in this situation were appropriate.”
MU Alert announced the lockdown via Twitter at about 1:30 p.m., almost two hours after the lockdown at University Hospital. At about 3:30 p.m., the MU Alert system delivered a tweet to dispel the unsubstantiated rumors.
It read: “We are releasing information as quickly as possible; it's important to check facts first. Many rumors that are not true are circulating.”
The MU Alert system began using its Twitter page in April of 2009. Before today, there were only two tweets on the page. The rest of MU Alert's seven tweets were posted today about the lockdown situation.
Students sign up for the text alerts through MyZou. Judging by the Twitter reaction, scores of Twitter users felt the university's decision to not use the text alert system was a mistake. Most wanted to know why the tweeting public was notified but not students who'd signed up for text alerts.
One of the tweets read, "I think @MUalert failed us today. They should have updated everyone at noon when it happened. Then there wouldn't be all these crazy rumors."
Another respondent tweeted, “I’m registered for the MU Alert e-mails, but I never received word about today’s lockdown at University Hospital. Nice. Twitter wins.”
A few Twitter users tried to redirect the conversation toward what was known. One tweeter posted the following: “The ability to post a Tweet doesn’t make everyone a journalist. Please confirm B4 you post. NO SHOOTING at UM Hospital.”
With the proliferation of social media use, Basi acknowledged that difficulties emerge with verifying information.
“It is definitely a challenge with social media, especially Twitter and Facebook,” Basi said. “We try to get information out that is correct, accurate and that dispels false rumors as quickly as possible.”
Basi said MU has to be more intent than ever on truth and verification.
“It may take a bit longer to verify because we tend to see more unsubstantiated information being broadcast and posted on social media, and that tends to generate phone calls to administrative and enforcement agency offices seeking clarification, which can delay the process,” he said. “But we have to verify and double-check with sources.”
“We hope that as the information does get out, that people will re-tweet the information,” he said.