The new normal? Oxford Street, fear and false alarms

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP | Traffic is halted on Oxford street following an incident in central London on November 24, 2017.

London’s Oxford Street was the scene of a false alarm on Friday that saw residents fleeing a supposed terrorist attack. The incident was quickly resolved, yet the panic that erupted is a reminder of terrorism’s lasting psychological impact.


Officers responded on Friday evening to reports of shots being fired in the area on one of the busiest evenings of the year as shoppers took advantage of Black Friday sales. After nearly an hour police declared there to be no evidence of gunfire, but in that short period of time hundreds of people panicked, barricaded themselves inside shops and bars, and took to social media to express alarm. The incident apparently stemmed from an altercation between two men.

The events in London followed a pattern that has become increasingly familiar in Europe. Over the last two years there have been false alarms in several major cities. In 2015, just after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, hundreds of people who had gathered at the Place de la République to mourn those lost were sent running into nearby shops and cafes after erroneous reports of a shooting. In 2016, Cologne ground to a halt as online reports of a woman with a gun at a labour office building escalated into national then international news. The building was locked down; no woman with a gun was found. This year a similar false alarm scared Rotterdam while in September Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and the surrounding streets were entirely evacuated after a bomb scare.

Smaller incidents also happen frequently. Paris’s Gare du Nord has been evacuated on at least four occasions, so far, this year while London saw evacuations of the V&A Museum in January, the Jewish Museum in February, the British museum in July and the Natural History Museum in October.

‘Priming’ fear

Clinical psychologist Samuel Sinclair sees these false alarms as illustrating just how keenly the effects of terrorism are being felt psychologically – even long after the event – and how a new “climate of insecurity” is making these situations more prevalent.

He also draws a distinction between how people process a traumatic experience unrelated to terrorism and how people respond to events like the Paris attacks. If you are hit by a car while riding your bike, for example, you will be psychologically affected by it, but you retain some control. “You can shape your behaviour as a way of moving forward,” says Sinclair. You can choose not to ride at certain times of the day, or in certain urban areas. With terrorism, he says, “it’s more prospective”. “Unless you simply stayed at home, going outside and engaging with the world will force you to face that threat,” Sinclair says.

Sinclair sees the frequency of terrorist attacks since 9/11 as having led to fear “infiltrating people’s lives and impacting their decision-making around many things”. Media coverage of these events has served to “prime people’s fear” and helped lead to stampedes like on Oxford Street: “People, given how fearful they are, are then more likely to interpret these ambiguous situations in a negative way.”

An apparent shift in tactics has recently seen terrorists focusing on small-scale attacks and more rudimentary methods. Whereas preparations for 9/11 saw terrorists spending months to train as pilots, the Westminster and London Bridge attacks earlier this year were committed by perpetrators using knives and rented cars. The very simplicity of these attacks increases the public’s awareness of just how easily they can be planned, says Dr Julia Rushchenko, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

“People are increasingly aware of how easy it is to rent a car and use it for these purposes,” she says. “Owing to these recent attacks, the public are more aware of this then they were a few years ago.”

Spreading disinformation

Ruschenko also sees the media as playing a role, saying social media -- notably Twitter -- is “instrumental” in fanning fear while events are still unfolding. And she was not surprised by people’s reactions in London on Friday. “People will overreact. This kind of response is justified based on what people have experienced in the last year,” says Ruschenko, “What is key here is social media’s spreading of disinformation.” On Friday, hundreds of people reacted to the reports of shots fired by tweeting their panic and live updating their followers. Pop star Olly Murs sent several tweets while trapped in Selfridges, only to be criticised by other users for spreading disinformation after it became clear it was a false alarm.

This potential for disinformation suits the terrorist aim of weaponising fear. “Their idea is to intimidate,” says Ruschenko. And the media “can help to perpetuate their goal of public intimidation”.

She says tech companies themselves must address how their platforms allow for the dissemination of information that helps spread fears of terrorism. Both Youtube and Facebook have allowed users in the past to upload extremist content with ease.

Youtube addressed this in 2017 by tightening its rules governing content as well as barring videos depicting extreme violence or hate speech, and the new policies affect videos that feature people designated as terrorist by the US or British governments. Facebook has faced similar pressures to tighten regulations, especially following moderation problems with its flagship project Facebook Live.

Can such actions play a part in helping to combat the fear underlying these false alarm incidents? “The online arena is not the only thing that is important but even there, there is always more to be done,” Ruschenko says. "There will always be a way to access more extremist material; eradicating extremist content is just simply not possible."

Instead, she says, the answer may lie with better monitoring. “Why don’t we leave it there, and monitor who consumes it, with the idea to understand it better?”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning