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Facebook fiction that became media fact

The social media rumours of a knifing attack on 25 people quickly reached various sections of the broadcast and (right) print media.

The social media rumours of a knifing attack on 25 people quickly reached various sections of the broadcast and (right) print media.

They say a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on.

Following Sunday’s knife attack in Paceville, sources at Mater Dei hospital yesterday confirmed police reports that six people were injured in the incident.

The confirmation came after widespread rumours circulated on social media in the last few days claiming that the actual figure was much higher than reported.

The rumours quickly spread to various sections of the media, with several reports quoting eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen as many as 25 injured people.

Sources at Mater Dei, however, yesterday confirmed the initial police report that only six people were injured, one of them critically, in the attack, which took place on Sunday morning at around 4am.

Hospital sources told the Times of Malta that five people were admitted to hospital in the immediate aftermath of the attack, while one person checked himself in some time later. Police also brought the aggressor himself for treatment.

Claims that additional nurses had to be called in from home to deal with the situation, and that private cars had to be used because not enough ambulances were available, were also false, according to the sources.

On social media the rumours led to some people branding the incident a ‘terrorist attack’

Amid claims that the independent media had deliberately misrepresented the scale of the attack, this newspaper also contacted the eyewitness who appears to have originated the claim that 25 people were injured.

The woman, who was with the injured Maltese man at the time of the attack, admitted she had only seen three other injured people at the scene.

She also said she had not seen any additional injured people at the hospital and had begun quoting the figure of 25 after being told “by some nurses”.

On social media, however, the rumours led to some people branding the incident a “terrorist attack” and claiming that the aggressor had shouted “Allahu akbar” while brandishing the knife.

Media analyst Carmen Sammut believes one reason for the speed with which the rumours gained traction is the current mood of fear surrounding migration, which has led to the perception of a kind of “Muslim invasion”.

“Stereotypes are psychological shortcuts,” she said. “The refugee crisis is already on people’s tongues, so events like these are used to reinforce these perceptions.

Dr Sammut added that because of Malta’s small size, news tended to spread mainly through a “grapevine” of person-to-person communication, which led to information and perceptions shifting rapidly.

“With the traditional media, there are codes of ethics and trained professionals,” she said.

“Social media has none of those parameters. It’s empowered people to state their opinions, but it can lead easily to this sort of situation.”

The perception that more crimes were being committed by foreigners, according to Dr Sammut, could easily lead to members of certain communities being scapegoated.

“These perceptions could lead to these communities becoming isolated and ghettoised,” she said. “That’s the real fear.”

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