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Lockdown after Florida mall shooting scare is the latest impact from rumors going viral

A police officer walks past people waiting outside of Macy's at Aventura Mall on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. Shoppers panicked and ran amid reports of a possible shooting at the mall. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)
December 28, 2017

The Twitter account for Aventura Mall in Aventura, Fla., couldn’t keep pace with the social media of its own shoppers. The scramble to flee was already well under way when Aventura management tweeted at 7:58 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas that police had found no evidence of gunfire but that the mall was nonetheless being evacuated as a precaution.

Thousands had already spent almost an hour trying to escape from one of the busiest shopping centers in Florida. Presents were dropped. Items were knocked over. Some people trampled each other, and children were separated from their parents. Once outside, shoppers spilled into parking lots so jammed that there was little, if any, movement.

Fueling the panic was something that has now become common: an explosion of voices on social media claiming to have heard gunfire that by all police accounts never happened. In one Twitter feed, a self-proclaimed investigative journalist posted a video of people running out of a mall toward a crosswalk as a man approached from the left.

The tweet claimed that the man was holding a gun. That was not at all clear in the murky image. It also wasn’t even clear if the video was of Aventura Mall. Less than an hour after the first call about a possible active shooter reached law enforcement, Aventura police had cleared out the 2.7-million-square-foot shopping center. Then a decision was made to keep the popular mall closed for the rest of the Dec. 23 evening, what typically ranks among the busiest shopping days of the year.

Saturday night’s chaos was only the most recent example of social media fueling public fear at large shopping venues and public events spots throughout the nation. In the past year, similar scenarios around nonexistent mass shootings or terrorist threats have played out in Ohio, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey and Texas.

And it’s happened here before, too — three times since summer alone. In August, shouts of gunfire and videos of panicked visitors at Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater forced the evacuation of that mall. Thousands fled restaurants and retail stores, running through and over each other trying to get away from what turned out to be nothing. And in November, Hialeah’s Westland Mall was closed after false reports of gunfire.

For security experts and police, such events have become all too familiar and frequent yet must be responded to swiftly and seriously. Some may be pranks or triggered by a strange loud noise or the mistaken impressions of a jittery public, but real carnage also has happened with disturbing regularity.

Images of hundreds fleeing an Ariana Grande concert last spring at a London concert hall when a bomb exploded remain fresh. Not long after, terror struck a London marketplace. Over the summer, eight people were killed in New York City when they were struck by a truck on a bike and jogging path. And in October, 58 people were killed and 546 injured when Stephen Paddock, from inside a room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, opened fire on concertgoers on the Las Vegas Strip.

In South Florida, shoppers at Merrick Park in Coral Gables were forced to flee that mall in April when a personal trainer named Abeku Wilson, 33, shot and killed two co-workers at the Equinox fitness club.

Los Angeles-based mall security expert Chris McGoey lays the blame for panic-stricken shoppers squarely on the 24-hour news cycle and the ability for people to quickly spread rumors on the internet. Today, a handful of people with cellphones can force-feed falsehoods into the digital universe, where it can go viral within minutes. The impact can be huge. There is emotional stress on shoppers, an economic hit on retailers and a strain on law enforcement resources.

“Welcome to the world of social media and the internet, where people normally oblivious have become obsessed because of constant media coverage. It’s happening all around the country,” said McGoey. “Police now have no choice but to shut everything down — but most of the time they don’t even know what they’re looking for. And people still don’t know what a gunshot sounds like.”

The Aventura Mall incident serves as a prime example. Aventura police Sgt. Chris Goranitis said his officers first received a call about a possible active shooter at Aventura Mall at 7 p.m. that Saturday night. Goranitis said that even an officer working at the mall claimed to have heard a loud noise of some sort. Officers quickly flooded the city’s most popular attraction, clearing out a retail center where they had previously worked on active-shooter training scenarios, in about 30 minutes.

By 7:10 p.m., however, social media was in full go mode. Twitter and Facebook were alight with unverified videos at the mall and claims by deniers that the police and the media were working hand-in-hand to block out information on a possible terrorist attack.

“World over. Authorities have decided to deny terror wherever they think they can get away with it,” tweeted one person. “As if burying one’s head in the sand ever solved a problem.”

When nothing was found after sweeping the mall, searching for bullet casings, broken windows or holes in a wall — anything that would suggest a gun had been fired — police made the decision to keep the mall closed and continue to investigate. Eventually, law enforcement said they found no evidence that a shooting had occurred, and the mall reopened on Sunday, the day before Christmas.

Goranitis, the Aventura police sergeant, said the noise could have been many things, from a firecracker to a kid’s toy gun to a nail gun fired off at one of the stores undergoing construction. Like others, he said social media played a large part in the panic that set in.

“Social media plays a huge role,” Goranitis said. “But I’m happy that nobody was hurt. And I’m happy that the police response was adequate.”

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(Miami Herald staff writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.)

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© 2017 Miami Herald

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