Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The Vauxhall incident

Otherwise known as a prime example of the problems of citizen journalism (and hysterical women)…

(This follows today’s liveblog coverage of the shooting at Stockwell and other events.)

First pondering:

“I find it strange there aren’t many press stories about an incident at Vauxhall. My colleague was on the tube and a rucksack had smoke coming out of it and the station was evacuated, with according to him people fighting each other to get out first. It’s on the BBC’s ‘have your say’ feature, but not mentioned anywhere else, except the Sydney Morning Herald, bizarrely.”

Here’s the BBC’s page in question, first:

“I was on the Victoria Line tube going north this morning at about 9.15. In the tunnel between Stockwell and Vauxhall we all noticed a distinct burning smell coming from a carriage in front of us (the middle of the train).”

And again:

“I was at Vauxhall this morning and I’d like to thank a man in a Fantastic Four T-Shirt for keeping me calm when everyone got panicky.”

And again, contradicting the first one slightly:

“I was at Vauxhall in the middle carriage and I heard shouting and screaming coming from the end carriage. I was standing by the door, so people pushed me off the train and I fell to the floor. People were trampling on me to get to the exit.”

And another:

“I was on the Victoria line tube this morning that was evacuated at about 9.20am. A girl I spoke to outside the station afterwards told me how she was in a carriage closer to the middle of the train than mine, and heard someone shout to pull the emergency alarm. She then saw smoke in the carriage and along with all the other passengers, rushed to try to get into the next carriage whilst the train was still moving. When the doors opened at Vauxhall everyone just legged it off the train.”

Then more confusion:

“I was on the tube at Vauxhall this morning at around 9.15am when all of a sudden people started screaming and running to get out. There was real panic and I thought another bomb had gone off but didn’t hear or see anything except screaming.”

And a more logical-sounding account:

“I was on a Victoria line tube at about 9.20am having got on at Vauxhall. The tube was just about to leave when somebody started screaming. I later found out they thought they could smell something funny. I’m not sure if there was any more to it than that but panic followed.”

Another bit of hearsay:

“A colleague was at Vauxhall this morning and there was a package in the carriage next to theirs of the tube, which exploded, with smoke everywhere.”

Then another account, this time from outside the station:

“this morning, on my way back in from a run, vauxhall station, a 10 minute walk from my flat, was cordoned off and people weren’t allowed to use the above ground trains.”

Finally, here’s something that professes to be an eyewitness blogger account of the Kennington tube evacuation, Stockwell standoff with police and aftermath of Vauxhall (although I’m not overly convinced of the authenticity):

“The whole of Vauxhall roundabout was cordoned off. Traffic was at a standstill. The roads were all taped off. People were standing beside their cars chatting on mobile phones. There were even army officers in camouflage gear.”

Lots of confirmation that something happened. Lots of different accounts. And you know what? Despite all this information, all these different pairs of eyes and ears and nostrils, do we know what actually took place? Do we bollocks.

Well, until you find something like this, that is:

LONDON -(Dow Jones)- There was a security alert at Vauxhall station in south London Friday, BBC television reported.

However, the alert later turned out to be a false alarm, the BBC said later.

In other words, only Auntie knows.

One person witnessing a worrying incident will rarely be calm enough to give a complete account. When there are crowds, they start talking to each other, and in the confusion mistake other people’s experiences for their own. It’s a form of shock-induced hysteria, and perfectly understandable. It does, however, make eyewitness accounts rather less valuable than has been made out over the last couple of weeks.

Likewise, one guy sitting behind his computer in an office (i.e. me, or any other liveblogger of events like these) can never muster the necessary resources to ensure accuracy. Liveblogging is little more than an electronic form of the person in the crowd who passes on rumours – and panic. And although “citizen journalists”, thanks to these limitations, are even more untrustworthy than the big media (even the scaremongering, scoop-hungry likes of Sky and Fox), yet other citizens are far too quick to trust the words of their fellows. Which is precisely why today I was asked by a work colleague “did you hear about the suicide bomber they shot at Canary Wharf on the 7th?” – a (false) rumour which appeared to spread from this very blog.

The short version of the Vauxhall incident?

Someone thought they smelt something, got hysterical and caused a stampede. It was nothing, but thanks to the lightning pace of internet rumour – and the fact that more and more people are turning to the internet (including blogs like this) for information when these things happen – it very nearly ended up fuelling a whole slew of conspiracy theories. Hell, it probably still will…

Bear this all in mind the next time one of these things kicks off. And for fuck’s sake, if you’re on the tube and smell something funny, ask someone calmly if they can smell it too before you start screaming like a rabid spacktard and causing a stampede.

(Also posted at The Sharpener)