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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Martians invade, kill gunman on the loose at MU

By Tom Warhover
October 29, 2010 | 1:41 p.m. CDT
The Oct. 27 hospital lockdown in Columbia caused rumors to run wild on Twitter. The number of tweets containing the phrase “University Hospital” in the Central Time Zone peaked at 269 tweets around 6 p.m.

Dear Reader,

Aliens have invaded Earth.

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A radio journalist was at the scene as they landed.

“Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me.

“There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear, and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It ... it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. ... The thing is raising up.

“The crowd falls back. They've seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can't find words.”

Do you buy it? Many did — on Oct. 30, 1938 — as the Orson Welles broadcast of “War of the Worlds” aired across the nation.

The headline on The New York Times’ front page the next day read: “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.”

By now many of you have read or heard about the Twitter-fed crisis-that-wasn’t at MU this week.

A gunman was on the loose on campus. The gunman was in the Virginia Avenue garage. The gunman had killed two people. The gunman killed four. The gunman was at a middle school, not MU.

Unlike Welles’ broadcast, the runaway rumors contained germs of fact. University Hospital really was on lockdown because a shooting victim was there, and the gunman had not been captured. There really were killings — three, in Callaway County.

The traffic on Twitter, a website devoted to sharing with friends and followers, was so high that University Hospital became a “Trending Topic” on the site.

The Missourian’s first tweet was 1:36 p.m. Wednesday: “University Hospital is on lockdown. That's all we've confirmed. We'll tweet back to you when we confirm more.”

The newsroom strongly suspected that “gunman on the loose” wasn’t true. It would have been just as irresponsible, though, to create another rumor until the facts could be verified.

As they were, speed was essential. People needed facts to fight the fear, which was in steady supply. Panicked parents called the newsroom and their children. Some students decided it was too risky to go to class. Administrators at other buildings made their own “lockdowns,” requiring identification for anyone entering.

All this, perhaps, because of a single Twitter message.

Did you buy it, dear reader?

In the unfiltered world of the World Wide Web, it’s important we all become more critical of information. Who, or what, do you trust? Where did they get their news? What’s my responsibility to check it before passing it along?

We all need a dose of skepticism, without becoming cynical.

Humor doesn’t hurt, either. Before the day was out, a Twitter feed called “Fake Mizzou” reported: “Breaking news: 439 students shot at Mizzou by crazed army of gunmen.”

And this: “That email we all just got from the University was actually from the gunman, trying to trick us. CONTINUE PANICKING!”

These days, the unthinkable becomes reality too often — who can forget the shootings at Virginia Tech? — and makes panic a reasonable first response.

But panic can hurt, too.

“Unaware of the fiction of what they had heard, thousands rushed into the streets and parks, spreading their infectious alarm as they milled around waiting for the destruction to overtake them,” the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times reported on Oct. 31, 1938.

“In the residential Clinton Hill section of Newark, police found more than 20 families with their belongings huddled in the street, their faces covered with water-soaked handkerchiefs. Fifteen of the group were treated at St. Michaels Hospital for shock.”

Happy Halloween.

Tom