Within minutes of a fight breaking out at Hanes Mall on Saturday around 7 p.m., rumors started to spread on social media.
“All the rumors were centered around this report of gunshots and a shooting. None of which were true,” explained Lt. Rose with the Winston-Salem Police Department.
He says the disturbance started when police asked teens to leave because they were violating the mall’s curfew.
The teens put up a fight and officers started to arrest them.
“Some members of the crowd tried to interfere with the arrests,” Rose said. “And then it was just chaos. It resulted in fights between individuals in the crowd.”
All the while, onlookers posted on social media that there had been a shooting, when there hadn’t.
“There were officers on scene that were capable and able to handle it. But because of social media it grew a different life,” Rose said.
The rumors forced police to call in 40 officers to investigate and to handle the panicked shoppers.
Social media expert Danielle Hatfield says false reports can have dangerous consequences.
“Social media makes it so much easier for anyone to take a rumor and blow it out of proportion. And to get a lot of online traction. But just because something has a lot of online traction does not make it true,” Hatfield explained.
She said false rumors of shootings on social media could impact business at the mall.
“That’s very real money lost by the business owners of those establishments. By spreading false rumors, you’re actually hurting your community economically in addition to spreading the panic,” Hatfield said.
According to Rose, rumors make it harder for first responders to investigate and help people.
“That created a hassle for us. It distracted us from the original issue,” he said.
Hatfield says parents need to talk to their kids about the dangers of spreading fake information online.
Rose recommends always checking the Winston-Salem Police Department’s social media pages for updated, reliable information.
Officials say the incident involved 80 to 100 juveniles in several different fights.
No one was hurt and no weapons were found.
The mall is typically open until 9 p.m. on Saturdays.