The last few days have been undeniably cinematic as Boston's bombing tragedy has turned into a horror siege.
There was the initial act of terror at the Boston marathon, the heroism of first-responders, the dramatic press conference in which the FBI released blurry images of two suspects, the ensuing manhunt, the police shootout--the list goes on. You could get dispatches from traditional news outlets like CNN or the Associated Press, announcements straight from authorities (the Boston Police Department has its own Twitter handle at @Boston_Police), or eyewitness accounts from your friends or family who live in the Boston area. Or, like most people, you probably got a combination of all three by tapping into social networks like Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, or 4Chan for vivid, real-time, often-dramatic feeds that have sometimes been accurate, sometimes not.
Who wasn't on the edge of the seat as the FBI asked the world for leads, revealed pictures of two young men who couldn't quite be pegged as foreign-born or American, identified the suspects and gunned one down, only to leave one on the loose, and an entire city in lockdown? These days, social media allows you to experience the news as it happens. You're not just sympathetically putting yourself in the shoes of someone else who lives many miles away; you're living it, too.
In a way, the FBI has always sought to involve the public in its investigations by asking for tips since it was founded in 1908. Over a century later, social networks lend a powerful hand to that effort, especially in a crisis, but they're also enabling the public to witness what's sourced--true and false, alike. Several online forums--including Reddit--incorrectly named 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing since March, as one of the suspects yesterday.
"For the Tripathis, a few hours on Thursday evening were made up of a nightmare unimaginable even for a family that would have thought of every eventuality in the last three weeks as they have waited for some news about their missing 22-year-old son Sunil," pointed out one New Delhi-based newspaper.
Box founder Aaron Levie Tweeted about the mistake:
Lesson: using the Internet to crowdsource suspect identification is apparently still in beta.-; Aaron Levie (@levie) April 19, 2013
The dissemination of false information is nothing new. Remember that tweet during Hurricane Sandy that said the New York Stock Exchange had flooded--which later turned out to be a hoax? Neither is the human interest in mysterious-and-horrifying news events.
But, more than ever before, social networks let consumers play a part in the action, too.
Lots of Real, Gory YouTube Video Footage
Hardware--as well as more access to high-speed internet connections--were powerful players in why and how the Boston marathon bombings have felt so real: It was documented with powerful cameras, and uploaded nearly instantly to the Web, from multiple angles. Citizens filmed some of rawest, earliest videos of the bombing, as well as the ensuing manhunt and shootout, and then uploaded clips to YouTube, ripe for the national media to pick up and further distribute.
Amateur videos, like this one of the police shootout early Friday morning in Watertown, Massachusetts offer viewers that perspective of events as they happen. While many media requires users to imagine or visualize what a scene might look like, YouTube illustrates it in action.
The FBI surveillance video--which the FBI uploaded--has been viewed 6,000,000 times in 22 hours. At one point, it was getting 300,000 views per minute on YouTube.
A Virtual Manhunt on Reddit
Take one of this week's most popular Reddit threads, FindBostonBombers. Thousands of Redditors started a virtual manhunt: they accessed Flickr accounts of the Boston marathon looking for potential clues, poured through Facebook accounts and Twitter photos.
They even had a few successes. One Redditor turned up an image of one of the suspected bombers, way before it hit any national media. Instead of sending files directly to the FBI, many posted images to Reddit to let the crowd decide if they were onto something.
It's tough to estimate just how many comments were generated--and even tougher to estimate how many actually said something substantive--but it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say close to 100,000 comments were made on Reddit regarding the bombing suspects.
But as demonstrated by what happened to the Tripathis, the crowd isn't always very smart--and with potentially damning effects. Thinking their son was one of the potential bombers (there are vague facial similarities), some people even started hurling invectives at the family's "Help us find Sunil Tripathi" Facebook page.
Here's how internet entrepreneur and blogger Jason Calacanis put it on Twitter:
One thing we learned during the #bostonbombing is that social media & blogs sometimes outperform mainstream media--or fall on their faces.-; jason (@Jason) April 19, 2013
Citizen Journalists Abound on Reddit, and Twitter
One Redditor, JpDeathBlade stayed up all night cataloging every piece of breaking news. When that Redditor needed to take a break (he had literally been up through the night) another Redditor, cedargrove, took over the documentation.
"A big thanks to /u/JpDeathBlade and /u/cedargrove for these updates," one user wrote. "I'm at work right now and this is the only way for me to stay on top with what is going on. Hopefully they get this SOB soon and alive. Thanks again guys, keep up the good work."
Twitter is perhaps the fastest medium to receive up-to-the minute information, but it is also extremely vulnerable to errors. (Unlike Reddit's upvoting and downvoting scheme, which boosts top comments literally to the top of a page, tweets are generally given the same amount of real estate on the screen, regardless of content. Still, a false yet sufficiently tantalizing comment could get promoted to more eyeballs via retweets.)
And of course, it depends on who you follow, as evidenced by this Twitter thread incorrectly desribing the suspects as Czech, rather than Chechen, below:
The level of misinformation, hyperbole, and, well, idiocy, is astounding. But it's also an inevitability when regular people (rather than journalists who have informed access and training) are given a pulpit from which to broadcast.
That's not to say that Twitter should be avoided; it's just a matter of recognizing its inherent flaws, biases, and limitations.
Steve Inskeep, the host of Morning Edition on National Public Radio, put it this way on Twitter:
We are collecting dots. It's a day to be careful about connecting them.-; Steve Inskeep (@NPRinskeep) April 19, 2013
The Suspense Builds
On Friday morning, the coverage of the bombing suspects took an even more "meta" turn on social news sites and throughout the media. The Boston Police Department, concerned that the suspect was actually monitoring social media while on the run from police, suspended its automated "crime and incident" tweets as the search went on. The department also urged the public and news media not to compromise officer safety by broadcasting the tactical positions of homes being searched.
There was an absurd element to the movie moment: The idea that the suspect was aided in evading arrest by following the information put out by his pursuers meant to apprehend him.
#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.-; Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 19, 2013
Brian Stelter, the New York Times media correspondent, called out this complexity on Friday, writing, "authorities simultaneously thanked members of the news media for spreading the word that Bostonians should take shelter and remain alert--and cautioned them against repeating secondhand or thinly-sourced information."
Interacting with news events on social media may make you feel like you're living in a movie. But it's a far from perfect experience. It is, like Aaron Levie says, still in beta.