Social Media, the Boston Marathon Bombings, and Believing Your Own Press

It has been a rough few days for folks in Boston and throughout the United States in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. My thoughts and prayers go out to all who are affected by the tragedy.

As of this morning, the primary events have come to a close. The suspects have been apprehended, dead and alive. Now the reflection begins.

Among the things to drop, social media has been taking a beating this morning in the wake of widespread dissemination of names of people who were falsely identified as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. Alexis Madrigal did a great job trying–only somewhat successfully–to trace the complicated and twisting chain of events that led to Reddit and Twitter users to speculate about suspects and disseminate names of suspects now known to be false. From what Madrigal can find, two names were out in social media space: one posted to Reddit from someone who thought that they recognized a person from a phono, the other Tweeted by someone who overheard a name on a scanner. Neither was identified by law enforcement as a suspect. But as Madrigal puts it:

The next step in this information flow is the trickiest one. Here’s what I know. At 2:42am, Greg Hughes, who had been following the Tripathi speculation, tweeted, “This is the Internet’s test of ‘be right, not first’ with the reporting of this story. So far, people are doing a great job. #Watertown” Then, at 2:43am, he tweeted, “BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.”

All of a sudden, we have suspects.

Except they weren’t suspects. They weren’t involved. NBC eventually got the information right based on contacts with law enforcement. But by then, the info had been tweeted and retweeted thousands of times. It was, as Madrigal put, it “a full on frenzy.”

What Did You Do?

Now, there are lots of angles to look at this from. This can be story about the remaining relevance of “old-school journalism” in the face of new media and blogging. It can also be story about how crowdsourcing may not be all that it is cracked up to be. I really look forward to hearing Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirkey—perhaps the leading proponents of new journalism and the power of crowds—reflect on these incidents to hear what they have to say. (And I really mean that sincerely, not in a snarky, “watch them backtrack and defend themselves” sort of way.)

But for me, this is perhaps most poignantly a story about the damage that we can do when we start believing that we are something that we are not. In this case, some people who do social media seemed to think that they were law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement is a tough job. I am thankful every day that there are people who do it. Like all of us, they sometimes make mistakes and do bad things. Given the force they are authorized to use, those mistakes and bad actions can be really amplified. But they are professionals who try to follow protocols to ensure that both the law is enforced and order is preserved. That threats are neutralized, yet the rights of suspects are upheld.

One of the key places you could see that professionalism was in how law enforcement labeled the people in the images they released from the bombing site. They weren’t “suspects” or even “persons of interest.” They were people that they wanted to talk to. Wrong word, those people go underground. Or worse, average citizens start thinking they have a bigger role to play in bringing people to justice than is safe for anyone. It’s not the Boondock Saints, but you can see them from here.

We didn’t see that kind of discretion in the crowd. The crowd jumped from name to suspect. And in doing so, created harm without helping the investigation. The family of one of the named people—one who has actually been missing since mid-March—got caught up in the drama. I can’t imagine the anguish that they went through, thinking somehow that their child was involved in all this. According to Jason Linkins at HuffPost, “the moderator of the ‘FindBostonBombers’ subreddit has put out a statement, apologizing for the misidentification” saying:

I’d like to extend the deepest apologies to the family of Sunil Tripathi for any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty information. We cannot begin to know what you’re going through and for that we are truly sorry. Several users, twitter users, and other sources had heard him identified as the suspect and believed it to be confirmed. We were mistaken.

This event shows exactly why the no personal information until confirmation rule is in place. Out of respect for Tripathi and his family, I ask that users here please remove any and all links about him. Thank you.

Somehow, “for any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty information” seems weak. And the rule against personal information might as well not exist, for all the good it did.

Pride Comes Before Someone Else’s Fall

Technology has enabled people to pretend they are good at lots of things without putting in much effort. Don’t know how to play an instrument? No problem. Roll the loops and automatic instruments in iTunes and you look like a rocker. Don’t know how to design? No problem. Populate a template and your site or print piece is ready for MOMA. Don’t know how to write a research paper? Hit a term paper site or grab some cites from Google Scholar and it sure looks like you did your job. Don’t have a big company? No problem. Hire a service and throw up a website, and you look like you are rolling with the big guys. Even though you still don’t have the skills, you’ve made yourself look really valuable.

The problem comes when we start to believe our own press. When we start to think we are actually good at what we don’t really know how to do, people can get hurt. Tech can provide a great place to learn, but it also can be a mask for ignorance, and ignorance in public causes all sorts of problems. Just ask the family who thought their son was a bomber.

I think that the ancient Greeks would have called what happened a massive case of hubris. In the Christian tradition, it is pride, which is one of the seven deadly sins. But this wasn’t the run of the mill undue satisfaction in one’s own achievements. It was undue satisfaction in imagined achievement.

There is a place for social media in law enforcement. Tom MacDonald of WHYY’s NewsWorks reported last week on the Philadelphia Police Department’s leadership in social media use. He quoted Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey as saying:

The department’s official Twitter account has 17,789 followers. We tweet alerts around traffic and crime, and interact with followers who tweet questions to the department…About 20 percent of all the tips we receive each year come through our social media portals.

That’s a lot of valuable data about crimes. And its value is enhanced by handing it off to the Police, who know what to do with it.

But what we saw were people acting out of pride, motivated by their ability to come up with information, paste a label on it that they thought (wrongly) that fit, and share it with the world. They may have wanted to help—or really thought they were helping—but that pride led to someone else’s fall.

Not that they will feel any of the repercussions. What pain does a retweeter feel?

A little bit of humility about what one really knows can go a long way to minimizing the amount of pain we create in this highly-connected world.

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