Back when I was a kid there were basically two ways to get the news of the greater world outside my block.
One was the newspaper. The other was TV. There’d be national news right about at dinner time and then the local news at 10:00pm.
In those pre-video days, it’d take a couple of hours for film footage of a big fire or a shooting in the city to be rushed to the station, processed, edited, and loaded in the control room. If the footage was from Paris street protests or the battlefields of Vietnam, it took a full day or more to get to my TV screen.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine in 1968 or ’69 news getting to me any quicker than it did then. I didn’t even dream of today’s nearly real time reportage via online news sources and social media.
We can, for instance, know just as police SWAT teams and ambulances are pulling up outside a school that a shooter is inside and gunshots have been heard. We know what’s going on before some of the first responders do.
Which leads us to the most deranged development I can think of right now (Don’t worry: tomorrow I’ll think of something even loonier — this is 2023, after all.) Apparently, there’s been a problem with people calling in active shooter reports to 911. These callers, acc’d’g to a report on NPR this AM, provide details such as how many shooters there are, how many shots have been fired, and bits of trivia only a school insider would know. Then, pictures of the school or the area surrounding it are posted on social media, leading to parents panicking and rushing to the scene to see if their kids are alright.
These calls are hoaxes. The phenomenon is called “swatting.”
The city manager of Twin Falls, Idaho fell victim to a swatting incident. He was in a meeting and was told there was an emergency at the local high school. This fellow said he was told, moments later, “there was an active shooter, that there was one person down, that there were three people injured, and it was in a math class.” His kid, he knew immediately, was in that math class at the time.
Ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, helicopters, SWAT teams, reporters, and horrified parents converged on the school.
The local NPR reporter said, “There was no shooter. The call was a hoax.”
It took law enforcement officials about an hour and a half to convince themselves nothing of the kind had gone down at the school. But kids in the school, wired in to the internet, caught false reports of the shooting and messaged their parents that they were alive but hunkered down and scared to death.
Even after a police spokesperson reported that the thing was a hoax, he was bombarded with calls from parents calling him a liar, that their kids were still in danger and that the city was staging a huge coverup.
Does it get any more insane than that?
Oh, yes it does. As the minutes turned to hours, even after the all-clear had been issued, kids kept posting that there were dead bodies, that they’d heard gunshots, that things were still in chaos. Their parents took them at their word.
A local TV reporter says, “…[A]ll this was fueled through social media.”
It couldn’t possibly get more psychotic than that, right?
Wrong. A school in a nearby town was reported to be under siege by a shooter at the same time. Then this, per the NPR reporter:
And on March 2, a whole new wave of calls came in all across the country. Highland Park High School in Topeka, Hastings Public School in Nebraska. In Lawrence, Kansas, police officers shared dash and body cam videos of officers responding to the call about a shooting at Free State High School in real time on Facebook.
The reporter added there’ve been “hundreds” of such hoaxes all around the USA in recent months.
A few of them — it’s not known exactly how many at this time because relevant 911 recordings have been impounded by the FBI for its investigation — have been made by a man with a foreign accent.
Many of the hoax callers now offer details that are obviously false or easily debunked after a few moments, the name of a non-existent teacher, say, or pix of arriving emergency vehicles from a wholly unrelated town.
The first thing that came to mind was — the Russians.
And why not? The Russkies flooded social media and fake news sites with all kinds of misinformation, libel, slander and general bunkum in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. At first it was thought Vladimir Putin’s directed his spooks to get Donald Trump elected president, and maybe he did. But far more likely, he only wanted to tear America apart.
He sure as hell did.
And now that Trump has served a term in office with the resultant polarization of the country, what more can Putin’s geeks do?
They can sow even more panic and fear. Nothing makes people more terrified than to think their kids are in mortal danger. A nation in a constant state of panic and fear can turn on itself in the snap of a finger. As an added bonus, swatting then sows even more distrust of the government, as evidenced by all those parents accusing officials of lying about the non-existent shooters. Because, they’ve been led to believe, that’s what government officials always do.
My conclusion? It doesn’t do me a bit of good, nor does it do anybody any good, to get news up to the second, every day, 24 hours a day. I don’t have my finger on the nuclear launch button. I’m not an emergency dispatcher. No news is of vital importance to me this very second.
A little taste of the TV news at dinner time or right before bedtime was plenty when I was a kid. The newspapers kept me abreast of wars and famines and local officials who’d been caught bribing each other. Today’s nearly real time reportage via online news sources and social media has harmed us deeply.