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Google claims to pull information for its crisis map alerts from “official” sources. But in times of trouble, experts say reputable information is not widely available.

A mass shooting gripped Philadelphia for seven long hours on Wednesday. For the better part of the evening and into the night, police were embroiled in a standoff with a lone gunman, who was holed up in a Nicetown rowhouse where he fired hundreds of rounds, injured six cops and kept five hostages.

It seemed like the entire city was tuned in. Hundreds of police arrived on the premises at the exact time of the evening news broadcast. Officers, reporters and everyday citizens scrambled to release information when they had it.

Around 7:30 p.m., Google chimed in. On the Maps desktop app, an exclamation point outlined in red appeared near the site of the gunfire. It read simply “Philadelphia shooting,” with no further information.

What was that thing? It’s called an SOS Alert. Launched by the search giant two years ago, it’s a service meant to make regular people aware of an ongoing catastrophe unfolding around them.

“Technology plays a vital role in providing information to help keep you and loved ones safe and informed,” the tech company’s info page reads. “SOS Alerts is a new set of features in Google Search and Maps to help you quickly understand what’s going on and decide what to do during a crisis.”

But here’s the thing: Google didn’t quite get this one right. Wednesday night’s alert identified the source of gunfire as being on 15th Street just south of Venango. The actual shooting was a few blocks north, closer to Erie Avenue.

Therein lies one of the major risks. Digital news experts say SOS Alerts could be helpful to inform the public during active shooter situations — but only if the info they offer is accurate.

Credit: Google Maps Screenshot

Misinformation can be dangerous 

Google introduced SOS Alerts in July 2017. Almost immediately, news outlets hailed the technology as a way to keep folks safe.

Tech news site The Verge said the alerts could “help out people who are actively looking for information about a disaster.” Philly’s local CBS station said they’d “help during a crisis.”

Researchers seem to agree: In times of unexpected danger, these alerts might help.

“Google does a great job of mapping things and giving us information,” said Nicole Dahmen, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon who researches the ethics of covering mass shootings. “Labeling active shooter situations could be beneficial for informing audiences and keeping audiences safe.”

But if Google wants to be in the biz of sharing information during a crisis, they’d better make sure they’re getting it right, Dahmen said. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.

“Oh wow, that’s really dangerous,” she said, hearing that the monarch of digital exploration had gotten a basic detail wrong. “That can lead to other problems, [like] mass panic.”

It’s not clear how often these alerts pop up in Philadelphia — a city that sees the equivalent of a mass shooting every three months. Google purports to publish them whenever there’s internet connectivity and “official content” available. Google spokesperson Genevieve Park declined to explain further.

A moral responsibility?

On its help site, Google says the information for SOS Alerts is sourced from “official content from governments and other authoritative organizations, and the impact on the ground.” What does that mean, exactly? The company spokesperson was unable to clarify.

Philadelphia Police declined to comment on whether they share information directly with Google.

During ongoing shooting situations, much of the immediate information released is wrong. Even if coming from generally reputable sources, like reports from the police scanner and career journalists.

This has been true for centuries. As the Titanic sank more than 100 years ago, telegraphs indicated the cruise ship was safely on its way to Halifax, according to an On The Media broadcast. And during the assassination of former President JFK, radio reporters stumbled through the details — at one point, guessing that there might have been three shooters. (Spoiler alert: officially, there was one.)

The problem hasn’t gotten any better with time, or with widespread access to information.

CNN wrongly reported six years ago that a suspect had been apprehended following the Boston Marathon bombing. Then after the Sandy Hook shooting, the network wrongfully identified the shooter’s brother as the shooter himself.

And NPR initially got it wrong when radio broadcasters reported that Congressperson Gabby Giffords had died after being shot in 2011, when she actually survived.

On The Media has released a news consumer’s handbook on what they should and should not trust during ongoing disasters.

“Instances of inaccurate and false information may be an inherent problem, given the nature of social media platforms and the number of people disseminating information,” reads a 2011 study from the Congressional Research Service. “Studies have found that outdated, inaccurate, or false information has been disseminated via social media forums during disasters.”

Dahmen worries the SOS Alerts could perpetuate the spread of false or inaccurate info.

“The bottom line there is that Google of course doesn’t claim to be journalism,” she said. “But these social media giants, they have a moral responsibility to provide accurate information, to not continue to fuel misinformation.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...