Oxford Stampede Deja Vu

It seems like just a month ago when I wrote an article about a spontaneous panic resulting in a stampede… in London, England… on Oxford Street, no less.  Same Brit time, same Brit channel, I suppose.  Surprisingly similar, both resulted in a spattering of injuries but zero fatalities.  I guess every once in a while, history repeats itself.

Oxford Street is a 1 mile long stretch of road in the city of Westminster on London’s West End.  It’s a premiere European shopping district, with around half a million daily visitors.

Once again, on December 26, 2017, there were reports of shots being fired.  But there was no gunfire.  And yet again, sudden hysteria overtook the streets.  Followed by a mass contingency of police swarming the area.  I wonder, at what point, does an overwhelming display of tactical force, actually contribute to a civilian state of anxiety?  The speeding vehicles, the flashing lights, the sirens, the drawn firearms.  When does the civil trepidation reach a breaking point?  A possible answer — when everything begins to mimic the look and feel of troops in an active war zone.

I’m starting to wonder if there’s a little bit of “societal conditioning” in play, specifically in the form of cognitive dissonance.  That’s the psychological stress derived from a person simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs.  This mental discomfort is usually grounded in morality.  But I’m starting to wonder if there could be a “panic precedent.”  The precise location(s) where the proliferation of wireless technology collides with a sudden jolt of fear.  Translation: history has demonstrated, time and time again, that you should generally be safe when venturing into a large, confined crowd (stadium, ballpark, etc.).  But what if an “X” variable entered into the equation?  One that you never fully considered or anticipated because it’s unavailable for public consumption.

In layman’s terms, it just seems like everyone is scared these days.  Maybe they’re worried about their kids being abducted or the toxins in their food.  Maybe it’s the opioid epidemic and perceived gang violence.  Maybe it’s the mass shootings or continual coverage of terrorism, both foreign and domestic.  Maybe it’s just the news in general.  The practice of coordinated fear mongering, whether it be intentional or unintentional, seems to be approaching new levels.  It might not necessarily be one specific thing.  It’s more likely an amalgamation of everything.

All this negative information comes in waves.  Every channel, every website, every email, every text.  Every ringtone, every swoosh, every vibration.  This techno-styled, info-bombardment is testing established norms.  And plenty of it is being relayed in real-time via social media.  Let’s take a look at the top headlines from the latest Oxford stampede.

BBC — Oxford Street panic: Woman hurt after ‘shots fired’ false alarm

Sky News — Shopper ‘stampede’ after false reports of shots fired

The Independent — Woman hurt after ‘shots fired’ false alarm during Boxing day sales on London’s Oxford Street

Metro — Panic on Oxford Street as people thought they heard ‘gunfire’

Daily Star — Panic as police scramble to ‘shots fired’ in Oxford Street

Daily Mall — Boxing Day shoppers flee in panic on Oxford Street as stampede leaves one injured and armed cops respond to report

Huffington Post UK — Oxford Street Panic: Police Respond to Reports of Gunshots But find Nothing

Express.co.uk — LONDON PANIC: Shoppers stampede in busy Oxford Street over fake gunshot reports

thejournal.ie — Panic on London’s main shopping street amid inaccurate reports of shots fired

International Business Times UK — Chaotic scenes in Central London after shoppers stampede following ‘reports of gunfire’

The Sun — Oxford Street panic as shoppers ‘run and scream’ after false reports of shots fired during Boxing day sales

ClickLancashire — Panic on Oxford Street after ‘shots fired’ false alarm

HeraldScotland — Sales shoppers flee Oxford Street in ‘gunfire’ panic

mirror.co.uk — Panic on Oxford Street as hundreds of shoppers run and scream

Evening Standard — Panicked shoppers flee Oxford Street after false reports claim ‘shots fired’

Every reliable media source in and around London reported on this incident.  Therefore, we’ll assume it actually happened.  These days, if you don’t like the news or it doesn’t conform to your personal world view, there’s a growing tendency to dismiss it entirely.

Every headline contained certain key words.  Panic, stampede, and of course, ‘shots fired’… even when there were no shots fired.

“Weaponized information” is a term that came to prominence in 2017.  Our perceptions about what constitutes the “weaponizing of words” might be a little outdated.  Cyber-security is still focused on various internet phenomena: hacking, ransomware, phishing schemes, bots, DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service), identity theft, state sponsored cyber-terrorism, social media manipulation, and so on.  We’re still focused on how the information is perceived.  Not how it could directly impact real-time, real-world events.  Riots, looting, protests, civil disruption, and yes…. even human stampedes.

It might be a wise idea to take a broader overview of cyber-criminal behavior and examine where it’s trending.  I’ll give you a hint — it’s mobile threats and connected devices. The IoT (Internet of Things) is an emerging battlefield.  Analysts and commentators sometimes reference the IoT, but rarely make any substantive, long term speculation as to what’s in store for us.  Other than to say, it’s going to get much worse, before it gets any better.  Wow.  How profound.

Let us assemble the ingredients.  Panic and fear?  Check.  Instant wireless gratification?  Check.  The confusion resulting from reality vs. fake news?  Check.  Now toss in a ubiquitous sprinkling of cell phone addiction and spread generously with a healthy dollop of paranoia.  And maybe just a dash of cyber-bullying and a hint of hacking.  All those key components just keep on popping up all over the planet.  It seems to me that society is gradually mixing up a stampede cocktail.  I wonder how long it’ll be until this dreaded concoction manifests itself in the United States?  Some would claim it already has.  At the very least, the reservations have been taken and the dinner party awaits.

Happy gnu year!

I often wonder if 2018 will be the year when humanity becomes acquainted with the “artificially generated stampede.”  If I was a bookie, I wouldn’t rule it out.  Neither should you.