Friday, July 22, 2005

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)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you not liveblogging these events anymore? hehe.

You make some good points, but I think that generally people are able to spot the rumours- once you report something I tend to hunt down the story, I'm sure many others do..

7/22/2005 10:03:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're drawing attention to this problem. I read about the Canary Wharf "shooting" on an American blog a couple of days after it "happened."

Today I happened to be at the BBC after the incident. Interesting place to be then, I must say. What I want to know is, why did we get into Parliament much more easily than we got into BBC?

7/22/2005 10:20:00 pm  
Blogger Eric S said...

Brilliant post!
I think you sum up exactly why so many of us turn to livebloggers in these situations. Our alternatives:

Fox News
*wipe away false tears* "Omigod, omigod, I think I might have seen a mushroom cloud, this could be THE BIG ONE, omigod, someone check my hair, is it blonde enough?!?!?"

Sky News
"Preliminary reports say that while the bomb failed to explode, up to 1500 may have been killed in the resulting chaos that has gripped London. We now go to an eyewitness who wasn't actually present when the bomb failed to explode, but he says that his uncle once knew a man who was in a pub down the street from the site of an IRA bombing in the early 80s..."

The Beeb
*off camera*
Field reporter to producer: "I can see the ambulances racing off with the injured, it's quite a horrible scene."
Producer to field reporter: "Wait for it...wait for it...we don't have confirmation yet. Someone run that lengthy piece about the different sound frequencies made by ceiling fans, and we'll get back to this in a bit."

Who the hell knows, their site has reached its limit of 3 concurrent users.

NPR (National Public Radio, USA)
Unconfirmed; the entire audience fell asleep during the previous hour's show, episode 13 of the new 20-part radio series "The History of Insurance Claim Adjusting in Rural America, 1963-1966". (to my co-workers: sorry, heh heh)

American Network News
"Yada yada, bombing in some place called London, I think it's a resort in Mexico, and now back to our previously scheduled reality show about proboscis monkeys living in sin with their girlfriends in a Las Vegas motel."

So you see? We end up reading liveblogs like this because the alternatives are generally not terribly useful. It's best to assume that anything we read is speculative at best, but livebloggers like Nosemonkey pull together the few *useful* morsels of information until a reasonably accurate picture emerges.

Oh, and I've never heard a legit news organization use the term "spacktard". They really seem quite bland in comparison...

7/23/2005 01:41:00 am  
Blogger sean said...

Think that is possibly a little hard on yourself. All you were doing was passing on info about an incident at Vauxhall. We now know there was something like panic at Vauxhall, amongst quite a few people. Isn't that news in itself? Isn't that also interesting, for what it shows about the state of Londoners' nerves? I think yes to both questions. Without blogs (and BBC 'What I Say' pages)we'd never have known about this, as it was crushed as a story by the resolutely unflappable mass media.
Indeed, the mass media is being, arguably, too unflappable: consider this counter-example. Only two blogs, as far as I can see, reported the incident at Canary Wharf. It was so not-covered by the mass media, people didn't believe it. I mentioned it on another website site yesterday, and virtually got shouted down for rumour mongering. Yet it now turns out there was a significant incident - a suspect terrorist wrestled to the ground by armed police. We know this cause of one single Reuters report, with photo. As far as I can see (haven't checked today) no one else ran this story (why?) so we have to rely on blogs to get this info out.
As long as we put caveats with our posts - 'these are just rumours' - I think bloggers are wholly entitled to post on these events. Hell - more than entitled. Blogs are essential.
Keep up the great work...!

7/23/2005 11:38:00 am  
Blogger sean said...

And while I'm here rumour mongering - smoke reported on Tube at Mile End! PROBABLY NOTHING THO!

7/23/2005 11:39:00 am  
Blogger Swimming said...

Hey, although the bombings in London are appalling, and make people edgy ( and I do not want to minimise the concern and threats)it is pertinent to note that at the same time more than 80 were killed in Egypt in bmbings. Thats more than 80 killed in London.

7/23/2005 01:15:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me and my girlfriend were both on the actual carriage in Vauxhall that filled with fumes after leaving Stockwell. The operation took over three hours - significantly longer than any of the recent 'false alarms'. The station was about to be reopened within about 20 minutes of the incident when police realised that the smell of the fumes was NOT the smell of the trains emergency brakes. They then mounted a very large security operation including bomb disposal units in contamination suits and masks. We both stayed with the police in the cordon throughout, then were moved at one point, completely out of sight into the street behind. I can say, and several other witnesses will corroborate, that our carriage definately filled with some kind of acrid chemical smelling haze, which we first tried to ignore but eventually became so strong that people began to cough. The reports of hysteria in the carriage affected are wildly exaggerated, most people managed to remain considerate and fairly calm under the circumstances. For a false alarm this was a pretty major operation, taken very seriously by the officers in the cordon. It's absence from any news reports from that day seems a little conspicuous to me.

7/24/2005 11:52:00 pm  
Blogger thinblueline said...

In regard to the "smoking bomb" reference,
I can say with 100% knowledge that there was indeed a carragie that had a suspect device in it.

IT in fact had come from north of the river and was stopped at vauxhall station and an evacuation had occured.

As soon as the all clear had occured at Vauxhall the shooting incident at stockwell had occured.. and I do mean a matter of minutes as I was listing in to lambeths met raido link as it all occured.

9/02/2005 09:45:00 am  

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