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John Hood: Believing in rumors can become dangerous

By John Hood

RALEIGH — If you draw your information about current events only from politicians, news outlets, and social-media influencers that share your worldview, you will be poorly informed. If you act on that information, you and others may come to regret it.

I could, of course, be talking about COVID-19. Not just in the United States but around the world, the amount of misinformation in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak was mind-boggling. But today I’ll offer you a different example that happened here in North Carolina just days ago.

At around 6:45 pm on March 10, police officers responded to a 911 call about a man flashing a gun at a group of other men at a shopping center in east Raleigh. When the officers arrived, they found a 26-year-old named Javier Torres. He had a pizza box in his hands and a pistol tucked into the waistband of his pants.

When Torres saw the police, he took off. At some point, he drew his gun and held it in his hand as he ran, rebuffing repeated commands by the officers that he halt and drop his gun. When Torres, still brandishing the gun, ran directly at one of the officers, the officer fired a single shot, striking Torres in the abdomen.

The police subdued him, confiscated the gun, administered first aid, and called for an ambulance. At this writing, the suspect is still hospitalized. He is charged with several gun-related crimes.

These are the facts as currently understood. They are based on accounts from multiple eyewitnesses, physical evidence, and, perhaps most compelling, footage from body cameras the officers were wearing at the time of the initial confrontation, the chase, and the wounding of Torres.

I won’t go beyond those facts to speculate about the suspect’s behavior prior to the arrival of the police, his motives in brandishing the gun or fleeing with it when the police got there, or what options the police may have had in the moment. Those are matters about which I lack firsthand knowledge or expertise. They are matters for the justice system to sort out.

But I will go on to tell you what other Raleigh residents did. They jumped to the wrong conclusions. They panicked. They got angry. They overreacted.

Social media was full of misinformation. Irresponsible people spread rumors: that Torres was a 16-year-old kid, that he was black, and that he had been peacefully leaving a restaurant with a pizza when he was shot in the back. Political activists soon flocked to the scene, comparing the incident to prior, high-profile police shootings in Raleigh and other cities around the country.

Within hours, a large crowd of protesters had formed in downtown Raleigh. Some marched to surround the homes of Raleigh’s mayor and police chief, demanding that the officials come out to listen to the protesters’ grievances and defend the actions of the police. Later, the mob converged on the executive residence of Gov. Roy Cooper, where some protesters tore down the American flag and burned it.

“Whose streets? Our streets!” they shouted. For the moment, at least, they were right — appallingly, outrageously right.

I hope the ringleaders of the protests, and those who foolishly followed their lead, will learn something from this incident and change the way they think and react to things they see on social media. Alas, they may reject the lesson. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to reject it.

Perhaps you would never stomp your feet outside a mayor’s house in the middle of the night. Surely you would never tear down a flag from the governor’s mansion and burn it in the street. But when you see something outlandish in your news feed from a like-minded friend, media outlet, or political figure, do you give it instant credibility? Although we all have the impulse to believe people more if they think the way we think, we all also have the ability — and the responsibility — to resist that impulse.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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