Skip to main content

Flowers lie on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa on Oct. 23, 2014. After a gunman fatally shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the memorial then attacked Canada's parliament, the news developed quickly all over Twitter.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Just before 10 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, Twitter erupted with news of a horrific situation unfolding in Ottawa. At 9:53 a.m., journalist Peter Henderson, who had been locking up his bike when he heard shots, tweeted "gunfire at the war memorial in downtown #ottawa." The news flash was retweeted 13 times. A minute later, at 9:54 a.m., Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove tweeted "gunfire in pariament [sic]." His message was retweeted 201 times. Three minutes later, MP Gerry Byrne tweeted that RCMP officers in the Centre Block, where the Conservative Party caucus was meeting, had drawn their guns. National Post columnist John Ivison then posted a picture of a small group on the steps of the National War Memorial, tending to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who had been shot by the gunman now on the loose on Parliament Hill. The photo was retweeted nearly 300 times. A few minutes later, at 10:12 a.m., MP Michelle Rempel tweeted from a computer in a Senate office that shots had been fired inside the Centre Block, along with a message to her mother that she was safe. At 10:18 a.m., cabinet minister Tony Clement tweeted that more than 30 shots had been fired. Three minutes after that, MP Bob Zimmer tweeted that the lone gunman was dead. The killer's final minute – he was soon identified as a disaffected Canadian named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – would soon be shared around the world on a video captured by Wingrove on his smartphone.

As the capital and much of the country remained on edge, not knowing if the siege was over, observation and speculation continued to flow without filter. At 10:49 a.m., CTV Ottawa tweeted that the Rideau Centre shopping mall, just across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill, was locked down. Another tweet, citing unnamed police, said a third shooting had occurred in the mall. A reporter on CBC Radio said there had been reports of a gunman on the loose, perhaps around the mall. By 11 a.m., Twitter was buzzing with references to gunshots near the Château Laurier hotel, adjacent to Parliament Hill. CNN blared a headline across the top of its website: "TERRIFIED CAPITAL." Much of Canada, and indeed the world, wondered whether another mass terror attack was under way.

As social media swirled with fact and speculation, the CBC's lead anchor Peter Mansbridge, perhaps the country's most influential journalist, got in front of a camera at 10:27 a.m. and was quick to stress how much remained unknown. The previous half-hour on social media had been rich with first-hand accounts of the attack, and then rife with second-hand reports about what was less certain. "And so, the situation is, as we say, tense and unclear," Mansbridge calmly told his viewers. "And it's on days like this – we keep reminding you of this and it's important – it's on days like this, where a story takes a number of different pathways, a number of changes occur, and often rumours start in a situation like this. We try to keep them out of our coverage, but when they come, sometimes from official sources, like members of Parliament, you tend to give them some credence. But you weigh it with what we're also witnessing."

In that single cautionary message, Mansbridge effectively defended the role of traditional media in a story that was being told by hundreds of people – professionals and amateurs alike – all within a square kilometre of each other, and distributed directly to millions of readers around the world. The anchor's steady voice and calm body language helped ease viewers through the ensuing hours of a capital locked in a fog of terror. What wasn't known, he repeated, was as important as what was known. But in the slipstream of Twitter, his voice could no longer control the shape and style of news, at least not as effectively as TV anchors once did.

Live coverage of shootings and lockdowns had been a staple of mass media since the advent of CNN, and with live coverage came inevitable mistruths and innuendo, followed by clarifications and updates. In such crises, TV anchors proved their worth, helping teams of reporters and producers develop narratives with the sketchiest of details. But this was not the assassination of JFK, when the world huddled around TVs and hung on every word Walter Cronkite uttered. This wasn't even 9/11, when a terrified planet turned to the decade-old Internet to witness the unfathomable. This was terror in the age of social media, when much of the world had grown accustomed to tracking events on their phones and through their social circles, blending journalistic and anecdotal content that came and went in random patterns and at breakneck speeds. Twitter, which had been around since 2006 and had come to dominate breaking news, was by 2014 much more than a bullhorn; it amplified bits of information with a velocity and reach beyond anything known previously to media. Even more powerfully, the young channel had given crowds the gumption to demand a voice in the shaping of that information. No longer just a relay circuit, Twitter users challenged journalists to rethink their control of the narrative – and their relationship with readers. The gatekeepers had been put on notice.

Excerpted from Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution by John Stackhouse. Copyright © 2015 John Stackhouse. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Interact with The Globe