The recent falsely claimed shooting incident in Oxford Circus gave us all a stark reminder about the power of social media and the importance of careful (and accurate) communication.

Social media was quickly blamed for escalating panic across the capital, with inaccurate reports about gun shots being rapidly tweeted and retweeted thousands of times. While the incident was later confirmed to be no more than an ‘altercation’ between two men, it demonstrates just how quickly inaccurate messages can be spread, as some people always believe what they read to be true – understandable when anxiety around terror threats are at a high. The days are long gone when you could safely ignore everything unless it appeared in The Times. These days we base everything from restaurant choices to holiday destinations on anonymous online postings by people we’ll never even meet – and yet somehow we trust them to help make decisions.

That’s why the Independent was justifiably criticised last week for publishing a series of articles with misleading headlines linking the issue directly to Brexit, and claiming Tory MPs had actively voted that animals could not feel “pain or emotion” – MPs actually voted to reject the inclusion of animal sentience into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, rather than voting that animals aren’t sentient. The story was originally (and accurately) written by FarmingUK and later given a political twist by left-wing viral site London Economic, before being picked up by the Independent. Unsurprisingly the news went viral, generating 537k online shares, causing outrage and debate across social media. Independent readers had trusted the paper’s integrity to check the facts and report accurately before sharing the story, as the original FarmingUK article had done, and therefore thought no more about reposting it.

Ultimately, we’re all responsible for making sure we’re not creating a domino effect by circulating inaccurate stories or twisted tales online (and in person) and only sharing accurate and credible content. As communications professionals, we need to set the bar and always stick to the golden rule of social media; think twice, post once. Double checking the facts can mean the difference between sharing an important story and sparking unnecessary panic.

Pippa Hanson headshot

Pippa Hanson is a senior account manager at Camargue