An anonymously-run Facebook page with little more than 14,500 fans sparked temporary panic at a major Marine Corps base in California by promoting the idea that an active shooting was taking place on Thursday evening.
At around 8:15 p.m., the page "Senior Lance Corporal" informed its followers that an active shooter was in the Las Pulgas area of Camp Pendleton, a major installation north of San Diego that hosts around 70,000 military and civilian personnel.
"ALL MARINES HAVE BEEN INSTRUCTED TO LOCK THEMSELVES IN THEIR ROOMS," the page wrote, while noting "This is NOT a joke" in a now deleted post.
The problem, which its many fans were not aware of, was that it was completely untrue. A Facebook page known to be a thorn in the side of the Marine Corps had called in the digital equivalent of a bomb threat, with real-world consequences.
In a press release, base officials said law enforcement personnel "promptly followed protocol for an alleged active shooter incident and responded."
The original Facebook post from Senior Lance Corporal spread fast, with it being shared more than 175 times. The page even wrote comments offering "updates" on the situation, writing "INTERNAL [QUICK REACTION FORCE] AND [MILITARY POLICE] ARE CONDITION ONE." (Condition One means they have weapons loaded with a round in the chamber).
"We investigated and there was no sign of an active shooter. No hardcore evidence," said Eric Moore, a dispatcher with the Camp Pendleton Police Department. Moore told Business Insider the department had received numerous phone calls from people who were worried, all sourced back to Facebook and Twitter.
He added: "They saw it on social media networks and then they started telling their friends. It's all rumor, it's all hearsay."
As the rumor spread on other networks and via word-of-mouth, the page then wrote that the shooter had been detained.
Of course, there was no shooter to begin with. Military police officers responded to a scene thinking there was a possible gunman, only to find the allegation was completely "unfounded," according to a statement from the base.
The incident highlights how a minor annoyance for the Marine Corps on social media has morphed into a potential danger. Brian Jones, the editor-in-chief of Task & Purpose, wrote a long expose on pages such as Senior Lance Corporal in August, which often serve as forums for sexist and racist jokes among Marines.
The Marine Corps refused to answer Jones' questions about the pages, only sending a prepared statement that said the pages' discriminatory comments go against good order and discipline, but law enforcement "is unable to take action against derogatory comments."
But as this hoax demonstrates, these pages are more than just harmless comments. It seems they have power far beyond the internet.
Business Insider asked multiple spokespersons for the Marine Corps whether it had any plans to investigate the page further. We haven't received any response.
Meanwhile, the Senior Lance Corporal page, which deleted both its hoax posts, blamed someone who messaged its page for the entire ordeal:
"All we were doing was passing the same word that would get passed down to us, we were not the ones making this up."
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