April 20, 2013

Social media: More hindrance than help?

After the bombings, posters cast suspicion on innocent people, spread bad tips and heightened the sense of panic.

By KEN BENSINGER and ANDREA CHANG/Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - Over the last few days, thousands of people have taken to the Internet to play Sherlock Holmes.

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Spectators take photos with camera phones during the Boston Marathon on Monday, before two bombs exploded at the finish line in an attack that killed three people and wounded more than 180.

The Associated Press

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For complete coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt, click here.

Armed with little more than grainy surveillance camera videos, cellphone photos and live tweets from police scanners, they have flooded the Web with clues, tips and speculation about what happened in Boston and who might have been behind it.

Monday's bombings, the first major terrorist attack on American soil in the age of smartphones, Twitter and Facebook, provided an opportunity for everyone to get involved. Within seconds of the first explosion, the Internet was alive with the collective ideas and reactions of the masses.

But this watershed moment for social media quickly spiraled out of control. Legions of Web sleuths cast suspicion on at least four innocent people, spread innumerable bad tips and heightened the sense of panic and paranoia.

"This is one of the most alarming social media events of our time," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. "We're really good at uploading images and unleashing amateurs, but we're not good with the social norms that would protect the innocent."

Even as first responders were struggling to deal with the three killed and more than 170 injured in the Boston Marathon blasts, Web forums were cranking out rumors that there had been four bombs instead of two, that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum had been targeted, and that the death count was well over a dozen.

In short order, forums such as Reddit and 4chan were alive with speculation -- based on little or no evidence -- that the culprits were Muslim fundamentalists or perhaps right-wing extremists.

In a mad rush to be the first to identify the perpetrators, anonymous posters online began openly naming people they believed had planted the bombs. Caught up in the mania, some traditional media ran with that information. Thursday's New York Post cover showed a photo of two men at the marathon under the headline "Bag Men" and implied that the two were prime suspects. In fact, neither was a suspect and one of the men, Salah Barhoun, was a high school student from outside Boston and had nothing to do with the explosions.

Once the FBI released images of the actual suspects, things really got out of hand. Online gumshoes scoured the Web for faces that might match and illustrated their work with drawings, circles and other home-brewed CSI techniques.

Some amateur sleuths focused their suspicions on Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing since last month. Using an animation tool, they used an image of Tripathi to highlight similarities between his face and the FBI photos of one of the Boston bombing suspects.

However, Tripathi has no apparent connection to the marathon bombing. That was underscored Friday, when authorities revealed the identities of their suspects, two ethnic-Chechen immigrant brothers -- Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Cambridge, Mass.

"We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil," Tripathi's family said in a statement Friday.

Advocates of social media and crowd-sourcing have long touted its unrivaled power to gather huge amounts of information quickly in crisis situations. With tens of thousands of people on hand at the marathon, most armed with smartphones, the sheer volume of data available for analysis proved too tempting to ignore.

"People in the moment want to participate. They want to be a part of what's going on," said Nicco Mele, an expert on technology and social media at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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