Rumors of mass shooting on Facebook, risk-free private conversations

Ahead of the annual Blueberry Festival in Marshall County, Indiana, in early September, a woman broadcast a warning to her neighbors on Facebook.

“I have just heard that there is a mass shooting at fireworks tonight,” the woman, whose name is kept to protect her privacy, said in a post on a private Facebook group with over 5,000 members. “Maybe just a buzz or kids trying to scare people, but they all keep their eyes open,” she said in the post, which was later deleted.

There were no shots at the Blueberry Festival that night, and local police said there was no threat.

But the post sparked fears in the community, with some members of the group canceling their plans to participate, and demonstrating the power of gossip on Facebook Groups, which are often private or closed to outsiders. Groups allow community members to quickly disseminate information, and possibly misinformation, to users who trust the words of their neighbors.

These other groups and other private features, rather than public resources, are the “future” of social media, Facebook Inc (O: FB) Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in April, revealing their importance to Facebook’s business model .

The threat of misinformation is spreading rapidly in Groups indicates a potential vulnerability in a key part of the company’s growth strategy. This could drive Facebook to invest in expensive human content monitoring at the risk of limiting its ability to post in real time, a key benefit of Groups and Facebook in general that has attracted millions of users to the platform.

When asked if Facebook is responsible for situations like the one in Indiana, a company spokeswoman said she is committed to keeping groups safe and that she encourages people to contact law enforcement if they see a potential threat.

Facebook groups can also serve as a tool for connecting social communities around the world, such as ethnic groups, university alumni, and hobbies.

Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform faced similar but more serious problems in 2018 after fake messages about child abductors led to massive beatings of more than a dozen people in India, some of whom have died. WhatsApp later restricted the message forward and began tagging messages to erase the risk of fake news.


In another post, which garnered over 100 comments of confusion and concern, another member asked the woman to report the threat to the police. “This is not something to joke about or be taken lightly,” she wrote.

The author of the original post did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Facebook’s policy is to remove language that “incites or facilitates serious violence,” the company spokesman said, adding that it does not remove the posting and that it does not violate Facebook policies because there was “no threat, praise or support of violence.”

David Bacon, chief of police for the Plymouth Police Department in Marshall County, said the threat was investigated and traced in an exaggerated rumor of the children. However, he said posting to the group on Facebook is “what caused the whole problem”.

“A post grows and people see it, and they take it as a gospel, when in reality you can throw whatever you want there,” Bacon said./

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