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Social Media and the Stockholm attack

VR-zone writer David Farrell was in downtown Stockholm, Sweden during the recent terrorist attack that saw a hijacked truck driven into crowds. Here’s his eyewitness account of the incident and his observations on how social media played an important role in public safety and awareness immediately after the attack happened.

It’s been nearly three weeks since this attack. Rakhmat Akilov, a 39-year old man from Uzbekistan, hijacked a large delivery truck and charged down one of Stockholm’s busiest shopping streets, killing four and injuring at least fifteen people. I was a stone’s throw away at the time.

Stockholm is a pedestrian-heavy city, and on an average day, you’ll find a fair amount of people passing each other on the side walks, but Friday the 7th of April was different. Something was wrong. Everyone seemed to be moving in the same direction, away from the city centre and Drottninggatan (Queen’s Street). Soon after, police sirens, firefighters and ambulances sped past, and helicopters hovered above.
I still didn’t understand – I figured that maybe there had been a robbery, or a traffic accident. People who weren’t leaving the area were gathering in crowds, smartphones held high, filming whatever they could catch a glimpse off.

Emergency workers load an injured man into an ambulance.

On the shopping street, I saw emergency crews shouting back and forth to each other, desperately giving CPR to a man in a stretcher while trying to lift him into the back of the ambulance, as police shouted at people to get back. It made my stomach turn. Behind them, tire tracks from the truck, and broken tail lights from vehicles it had smashed into, confirmed the rumors already circulating on the web. Suddenly, SWAT teams were deploying, rushing into commercial buildings in the area, wearing body armor and carrying sub-machine guns. It caused a panic in the lingering crowd, who cried out and ran for their lives. Soon after, there were reports of gunfire in several parts of the city, including the neighborhood where my brother’s office is located. This later turned out to be false report.

Within half an hour, the entire city was in lock-down. The city centre was cordoned off, and police were raiding the central station. Shortly thereafter, trains, subways and buses across the city were shut, and the shops were closed. An entire city full of people were either locked up in their buildings, or on the streets. It was like a mass exodus as everyone tried to figure out where to go, where it was safe, and how to get home.

Crowds gather around the center of the city as police begin cordoning off the area.

Technology played a big part in the aftermath of the attack, and contributed not only to catching the man responsible, but also in helping the people of Stockholm to find ways out of the unexpected and chaotic situation they had been thrown into. One of the first things to happen after the attack was that the cell phone networks became overloaded. Everyone in the city was suddenly calling to check on loved ones and coordinate with each other. I was unable to reach my family at first, and when I finally did, the signal was poor and it was difficult to relay any information. I quickly discovered however, that the data network wasn’t affected to the same extent, and I was able to call my family using the Telegram App’s voice call function. Instant messaging also allowed me to check on other friends and family. If those options aren’t available to you, Facebook also features a Safety Check system that allows you to quickly announce to your contacts that you’re okay.

In the hours that followed, thousands upon thousands of people were stranded in the city with no mode of transport to get back out. I was lucky enough to hitch a car ride out of the city, but for many others, that wasn’t an option. Here too however, technology came to play a big role. In an act of solidarity and empathy, many citizens opened up their homes and took in those who had nowhere to go. Announcements were made on social media, particularly on twitter, using the tag #openstockholm, to offer a meal, ride or place to stay as the city got back on its feet.

Police seal off an area during a raid.

Flashback, a popular internet forum, also circulated an image released by authorities of the suspect, and before his name ever reached the media, they had produced a name. It’s unclear if this aided police, but what is clear is that the suspect was spotted and followed by vigilant citizens north of the city, leading to his arrest within a day. One woman phoned police after spotting the man on a train, and when she was unable to follow, another citizen tailed the suspect in his car, giving the police his location until he was finally arrested in the town of Märsta.

Technology is our friend when times get tough. If you’re smart and you use technology, especially the internet, to your advantage, you can save yourself a lot of uncertainty and trouble. It’s hard to imagine what an event like this feels like before you’re in it, and how to get out in one piece.

I wouldn’t wish for anyone to have to experience what Stockholm did on the 7th, but at the end of the day, I’m proud to be a Swede, and I’m proud of the way my city responded to crisis. In the weeks following this attack, the city has come together again, but this time offline. The city center has been covered in flowers and messages of love and unity, both from locals and from visitors abroad. I suppose, if there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that we stand strong together, and that an act of hatred and violence only strengthens us against those who would do us harm.

A plaza in the city centre is covered in flowers a few days after the attack.

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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