The fingers began pointing long before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was even in handcuffs. Who was to blame for the wealth of misinformation in the days following the Boston Marathon bombings? It should come as no surprise that many of the fingers were pointed in the same direction: our social networks.
“Social Media Spirals Out of Control” alleged the Los Angeles Times. CNN went so far as to insinuate that Reddit was responsible for the New York Post’s horrifying decision to put the photo of two innocent marathon spectators on its front page.
Yes, Twitter, Reddit, and other social networks got plenty wrong in the minutes, hours, and days after the bombings. But they were by no means alone. Mainstream media outlets like CNN strung together a reel of blunders, half-truths, and outright fabrications.
You’ll hear many claim that the errors were caused in part by the additional pressure social media applies to mainstream media outlets to get information out quickly, even if it’s not confirmed. Joe Concha from Mediaite compared Twitter to a “blitzing lineman who’s rushing the quarterback, making him throw the ball before he’s ready.”
But I believe that social media has a lot to be proud of, as it witnessed this terrible tragedy unfold.
1) Lifeline to Families and Friends – Imagine your daughter was at the marathon, and you’re desperate to find out if she’s okay. With cellular networks crushed under the weight of millions of calls, texts and social media were your best options. In fact, in order to see if my cousin was okay, my first instinct was to check her Twitter feed for the timestamp of her last tweet. Now think back to September 11, 2001. I worked at the U.S. Capitol and knew my parents would be concerned after we were evacuated. In a pre-text, pre-social media world, I didn’t have a cell phone, and remember asking a perfect stranger — who had somehow gotten through to her family — to ask her sister to call my parents and let them know I was okay.
2) Wisdom of the Crowd – While it’s incredibly easy to report and spread an erroneous claim through social media, many networks – especially Twitter and Reddit – proved to be exceptional at correcting misinformation in a timely manner. Often, false reports were corrected on Twitter before CNN got around to it. Media mistakes during quickly developing news stories are by no means new. On September 11, an inaccurate report about a car bomb at the State Department somehow persisted for hours. CNN famously botched its first reports on two seminal Supreme Court decisions – Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Obamacare in 2012. Is it possible that social media actually improved the accuracy of the mainstream media last week? In addition, law enforcement officials actually leveraged the collective knowledge of the crowd by using social media to spread photos and videos of the two suspects.
3) Taking Out the Middle Man – In a pre-social media world, public safety officials could only communicate with the people through the media. Last week, the Boston Police Department – already renowned for its social media prowess – became an invaluable source of information for the people of Boston (and the world), especially during the city’s “shelter in place” decree. In fact, those following BPD’s Twitter handle learned about the arrest of Dzhokar Tsarnaev before it was reported on CNN. More importantly, BPD utilized social media and new technology to inform the public and keep them safe.
4) Twitter Grows Up – One of social media’s finest moments came on Friday, when most users showed remarkable restraint in accommodating the request of the police to not tweet information overheard on police scanners or tweet the location of officers during the house-to-house search for the second suspect. Of course, there were several who violated that trust – most notably, the Social Media editor of Reuters. But many viewed the moment as a sign of the maturity of the network.
Social media can never and will never satisfy our need for traditional journalism. However, the last week demonstrated that social media and traditional media can simultaneously strengthen one another and serve the greater good when working in tandem.