A butterfly flaps its wings, blows up a rumour

A butterfly flaps its wings, blows up a rumour

Social media came alive last Friday night, Jan. 26, with hard talk of an axe murderer making the rounds.

What actually occurred is that Cranbrook RCMP arrested a bloodied man, “without incident,” outside Safeway, after a concerned resident called in to report the individual walking around downtown with an axe, according to official police press news releases after the fact.

But social media whipped an extreme rumour around town like a wind whipping a wildfire — that people had been killed, that the axe-wielding individual was still at large and running amok. Later, I heard several different versions of the story, of what had actually occurred prior to the incident — all of them completely different.

The RCMP later put out a statement:

“There was a lot of speculation on social media about this incident … Cranbrook RCMP want to stress that not everything that is said on social medial platforms is the truth. If something serious would have occurred that could have put the community in jeopardy, rest assured that there would have been notification from the RCMP.”

My personal favorite comment on our website in response to this statement —“What .. So he did not just come back from a murderous rampage that took the lives of the entire city of Cranbrook?”

This is not to make light of public concern, however it developed. It’s never a bad idea to lock one’s door, especially when you get a message from a Facebook friend urging you to do so at once. Better safe than sorry, indeed.

Nor am I looking askance at social media’s ability to whip something out of proportion and send it around town at the speed of thought. Almost as quickly as the rumours flared up, the rumours died down.

No, this was a basic human tendency at work, and in this case it was mild, compared to other incidents I’ve seen.

For instance, I will never forget, in Cranbrook in 1999 — long before social media, and even before the internet was as all-encompassing as it is now — how a rumour got started, took its time building up into a frenzy, and then took almost an equally long time dying out.

At some point, a rumour has to be started by one person. A butterfly flaps its wings, creating a minuscule breeze, that builds into a hurricane. In this case, in 1999, someone had noticed that a woman, often seen walking up and down the highway, hadn’t been seen for a while. To make a long story short, over the course of two weeks, this observation had grown into a roiling story of a serial killer on the loose and a police cover-up.

I was getting phone calls, demanding that the truth be published for the safety of the community. When I said that the RCMP were adamant in their denial that anything slightly like this was happening, neither I nor the police were believed. I even had colleagues come up to my desk, asking why we were being so hush-hush about the “fact” that a serial killer was at large. One of my colleagues actually told me, when I replied that it was because this rumour wasn’t true, that he had a friend with a police scanner, and that …

It was all quite frustrating. But at the back of my mind was a niggling doubt — what if there was something happening? What if I was so completely out of the loop?

In any case, the Cranbrook RCMP finally put out a press release. The woman in question had gone to visit relatives in another province. So stop it!

This was our front page news, and the radio broadcast it repeatedly. But I still got a couple of calls afterwards. And my colleague at the time came up, shaking his head. Don’t believe everything official you hear, was his general reaction. The truth is out there.

So despite the on-going communications revolution of the past 20 years, whenever we humans band together in communities, our favored mode of information sharing still seems to be the game of whispering something into the ear of our neighbour, who then whispers it into the ear of their neighbour, and so on, until several transmissions later the original message has been transformed into something quite different.

And again, while modern communications technologies like social media can shift this process into warp speed, it can correct it just as fast.

And let me repeat, it’s never a bad idea to lock your door when you get a Facebook message urging you to do so at once.

Barry Coulter is the Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman