Mike Cushing / Digital Marketing / April 25th, 2013

With Great Data Comes Great Responsibility – Balancing Safety and Information After the Boston Marathon Bombing

Last week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon was the first event of its kind. The attack itself was, unfortunately, all too common, but the events that followed – a crowd-sourced investigation and a real-time manhunt on social media – were a new breed of social news. Dangerously new.

Following the bombing, the FBI asked for public help in identifying the bombers by sending photos and videos. For a number of people online, that was a call to help the FBI investigate the attack by pinpointing the bombers. Nearly every high-profile crime has attracted amateur detectives to sift through clues, but this investigation was different.

For the first time, citizens were able to conduct a parallel investigation in real time by scouring the marathon’s official Flickr accounts and the photos posted by race watchers, bystanders and media outlets. The most visible investigation took place on the Reddit.com forum “findbostonbombers,” a sub-reddit that has now been closed and deleted.

Within just a few days, the forum had nearly 2,500 members poring over any information they could get their hands on. When the FBI released a photo of the backpack that housed the bomb, redditors quickly zeroed in on a handful of potential suspects, assigning them monikers and even recreating what a bag with a bomb might have looked like.

Above all of this speculation was a warning of restraint: a massively upvoted post reminding the online sleuths of Richard Jewell, the police officer who was wrongly accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing. While the warning shows that many recognize the dangers of using information in the wrong manner, it wasn’t nearly enough to prevent.

In an interview with MSN News, the creator of findbostonbombers said “the worst-case scenario is we waste our time. But the best is that we find something the FBI missed,” which would be true if redditors’ speculation stayed between reddit and the FBI.

It did not.

Through the investigation, redditors falsely identified a number of suspects, including missing college student Sunil Tripathi in the early hours of Friday morning. In a case of mob justice gone horribly wrong, some users went as far as posting their accusation on a Facebook page dedicated to locating the missing Tripathi.

WHEN STORY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN TRUTH

With a story that played out almost like an episode of 24, maybe it’s no surprise that the mainstream media failed us as badly as it did. Throughout the week, major media outlets continually gave inaccurate reports, presented rumor as fact and generally gave Jon Stewart plenty of ammunition to work with.

One could argue that the mobsourced investigations of sites like reddit and 4chan were irresponsible, but the week’s largest failure came from the professional media. They may have fallen victim to an increased signal-to-noise ratio, but it doesn’t change the fact that when people most needed information, the professional media could not match the social realm for speed and scope. And when they claimed to break new developments in the story, they could not deliver reliable sources or accurate reports.

The New York Post – hardly an upstanding bastion of journalistic integrity to begin with – was an especially egregious offender, first reporting an inflated death toll, then reporting a suspect under guard at the hospital and finally printing an image of two young men on the front page, claiming they were wanted by the FBI.

This photo, run on the front page of the Post, claimed the two men shown were being sought by the FBI suspects. Unfortunately, the image was pulled from the reddit investigation thread, and the men were merely “suspects” that redditors had singled out and passed along to the FBI’s public email account. ABC News quickly did some actual reporting and learned that the men were not suspects and were just innocent bystanders.

This is the failure of a less-than-reputable newspaper, but it shows that the gap between social news and traditional media is closing rapidly. There are no rules for moderating the new blend of reporting. This crossover between social media and traditional media is probably inevitable, but last week has shown that it has serious implications, and it’s a clear challenge for news outlets to overcome.

Less than 10 years ago, it would have been impossible for amateurs to conduct a full-scale, cooperative investigation of the kind that reddit undertook. CNN would never have been able to get a personal video of the bombing within minutes of the attack. People following the story would never have been able to hunt down the family members of a falsely identified suspect to harass them.

What does it mean for news when nearly everyone has the power to be an instant reporter?

A REPORTER IN EVERY HOME – THE ROLE OF MOBILE IN CREATING REAL-TIME NEWS

On Friday, a coworker heard a radio report on 106.7 News Radio in Atlanta that there are 300 million more mobile devices with a camera today than there were on 9/11. The events of this week – from Boston to West, Texas – gave us a good look at what that means for the way information travels. Last Monday, it took less than a minute for the first report of an explosion at the marathon to surface. It came from Twitter. (source: http://blog.skepticallibertarian.com/2013/04/15/twitter-pinpoints-the-minute-of-the-attack/)

In the following minutes, images, videos and Vines were shared more quickly than network news was able to. It was disjointed, it was chaotic, but it was information that no one would have been able to see even just a few years ago.

Traditional media lagged far behind the Internet in reporting, especially during Friday’s manhunt through Watertown. For millions of people, the most accurate source of information was a webcam streaming the Boston police scanner, which cable news often took 15 minutes or more to confirm.

This level of information elevated the movie-thriller feel of the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – the thought of a fugitive evading capture by listening in on the radio chatter of his pursuers? Come on.

Online sources, especially Twitter, became the news of the day. Thousands of Twitter users quickly tweeted any tidbit overhead on the scanner with no thought of context or impact.

So, what does that mean for news?

THE SPEED OF INFORMATION HAS INCREASED DRAMATICALLY

Let’s consider the flow of information during Pearl Harbor, an event that drew the attention of millions of Americans. At 11:55 a.m. EST, 7:55 a.m. Hawaiian time (4 hours behind EST), the first wave of Japanese planes attacked, an aerial assault that lasted for more than 2 hours. It took nearly 1 ½ hours for President Roosevelt to be informed at 1:30 p.m. EST, and another 1 hour before the Associated Press released a bulletin at 2:22 p.m. announcing the attack to the public.

The only eyewitness report came from a radio reporter who called the NBC network to deliver an ongoing account. That is nearly impossible to fathom in today’s world.

Now let’s imagine something much closer in mind: 9/11. Smartphones and mobile device adoption have skyrocketed since that terror attack. Even just a decade ago, the majority of the reporting and reactions to the attack came from network news or from professional photographers who raced to the scene of the World Trade Center.

At 8:46 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 a plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.Although it only took 3 minutes for CNN to break the news, there is no video or still image of the first plane striking the tower.

As other media outlets slowly began to break the story, word of the crash spread through phone calls and emails to loved ones and at 9:03 a.m., millions of Americans watched together as a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Slowly, as reports of the Pentagon attack and the downed Flight 93 were released, the media was able to build a picture of an unprecedented terror attack.

Anyone who watched that day and the following weeks can tell you that the professional media was thrown into chaos by the events of 9/11. Reporters scrambled to find reliable sources and track down leads, and as viewers we were entirely reliant on newspapers and network news to give us additional information.

It’s hard to believe the first iPhone was released in 2007, but imagine what 9/11 would have been like with the mobile technology of today. Imagine having more than just the handful of video angles of the attacks that media outlets were able to capture.

Media widely shared final voicemail messages of victims calling their loved ones. Imagine a torrent of socially shared images from inside the towers, or Skype messages from the brave passengers on Flight 93.

GOT A PHONE? GREAT, YOU’RE A JOURNALIST

The rise of mobile and social media has created an arms’ race for traditional media outlets, who scrambled this week to find citizen journalists who could follow the story more closely than they could.

While traditional media usually tries to find multiple sources and confirm leads before reporting, the social news juggernaut has absolutely no barriers other than the personal restraint of an individual. And, as we saw in the case of reddit’s private investigation, a note of caution does very little to compel restraint in the sharing of information.

Got a cool photo of SWAT officers surrounding a house that a suspect might be hiding in? Post it. Have a police scanner? Broadcast the chatter on Ustream. Think you might have identified a suspect in a pool of photos? Circle his face and send it around the Internet.

Is this a bad thing? I’d argue not. Information needs to be free, and as we move forward the amount of information generated by any large event will grow dramatically. But it’s time we begin to take responsibility for the data that we make.

Throughout Friday’s chase of the bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston police and Massachusetts state police repeatedly asked that people not spread the locations and movements of law enforcement officers.

In the past, that request would only be needed for media outlets, but now it counts for anyone with a smartphone or an Internet connection.

TRAGEDY REQUIRES AN AUDIENCE

What made the hunt for the bombers so fascinating was the almost forbidden nature of what we were able to watch unfold. Until recently, it would have been unthinkable that average Joes like ourselves would be able to see the inner-workings of a terrorism investigation, much less be an active participant.

In the end, the FBI identified the bombers by combing through a security camera feed the public did not have access to and releasing the video. The suspects were identified by their aunt who recognized them on the video.

After all the fervor of the online investigation, it was almost anticlimactic to identify them in such a traditional, plodding manner, but it seems representative of a much larger point. While reddit clamored around the periphery of the investigation and falsely identified a handful of people, the FBI worked quietly to find the bombers and then quickly to apprehend them with the local police.

Reddit moderators should have preserved the /findbostonbombers/ subreddit as a kind of museum of crowdsourcing gone terribly wrong because that forum showed more than anything else the shortcomings of the social realm during a tragedy.

The professional media did not distinguish itself from social media nearly as well, and we can learn a lot from that. New technology played a huge role in reporting the bombing and the ensuing manhunt – from Google Locator being used to find loved ones after the race to police communicating directly to citizens via Twitter and Facebook – but there are certain places where that technology completely and utterly fails in the hands of well-intentioned amateurs.

In the past, we’ve only been able to consume the news from a few reliable sources. If the aftermath of the bombing shows anything, it’s that the line between audience and reporter has blurred enough to be nearly nonexistent. It’s time that we all learn to walk that line responsibly.

Photo Credit: shawncampbell via Compfight cc