Loading articles...

Could Toronto van attack signal more reasoned social media? Experts are divided.

Last Updated Apr 25, 2018 at 8:20 am EDT

Emergency services close Yonge Street in Toronto after a van mounted a sidewalk crashing into a number of pedestrians on Monday, April 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

TORONTO – Within minutes after a white van hopped the sidewalk and began mowing down pedestrians on a Toronto street, photographs and videos of the incident began pouring onto social media platforms.

Facebook and Twitter became some of the earliest sources for many Canadians looking for a glimpse into the havoc of a breaking news event, but social media analyst Bruce Cameron sensed a different tone to their reactions.

Fewer people seemed willing to jump to conclusions based on what little they knew about the man suspected to be the van’s driver on Monday, he said.

Less than a day later, Alek Minassian was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder.

While social media was alight with comments about the incident shortly after it happened, Cameron said generally speaking he felt there was a greater restraint over sharing unverified information, compared to other cases in recent memory. He said it could be a sign of growing skepticism towards what’s being shared online.

“We’re entering a stage where the initial glow and allure of social media has faded somewhat,” he suggested.

In the wake of revelations around Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy firm embroiled in accusations over harvesting private Facebook data, Cameron believe there’s a tangible change afoot in the weight people give their social media news feeds.

“In the next year or two, we’re going to enter a more mature phase of how we use and digest social media,” he said.

“This (incident) may well be looked back at as an example where the worst impact of social media didn’t come to pass.”

It’s an optimistic prediction that not every social media observer considers realistic.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of journalism at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, said if anything, the Toronto van attack was further proof alt-right activists will use any opportunity to fuel speculation about terrorism designed to further their cause.

“There may have been a moment of restraint by virtue of the fact this was such a horrific and unusual act of violence — but my guess is that it will resume in the usual manner in a few days,” he said.

“The conspiracy theorists will start to reassert themselves shortly, once the initial horror has either passed or sunk in more deeply.”

Dvorkin also questioned the media outlets who chose to broadcast smartphone videos showing Toronto police arresting the van’s driver. He also felt it unnecessary for outlets to run graphic images of the crime scene.

“Even a few years ago, many media organizations would not have allowed that,” he said.

“But now it’s the idea that if the whole town’s talking about it, it must be news.”

Ryan Scrivens, an extremism researcher at Concordia University, suggested that news coverage also drove the conversations on social media. He took issue with how breaking news channels interviewed eyewitnesses who speculated about terrorism and the description of the suspect.

He said even in his position as an experienced professional studying terror cells, he is usually careful not to draw conclusions — but he had to check his cautiousness against a gut reaction, which was to immediately think of terrorism.

“I didn’t want to jump the gun, but it did fit the bill,” he said.

Scrivens suggested that others ignore the tendency to draw conclusions before the facts come out.

“We have to wait for the information,” he said.

“It’s hard, because on social media we’re just being bombarded with constant updates. I think we just need to cool off.”

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.