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.


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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.

So as the Boston Police Department engaged in a gunfight with the two brothers in Watertown, Mass., early Friday, tens of thousands of Web denizens tuned in to live streams of police scanners, furiously tapping notes and ideas into Reddit and Twitter.

"I feel like we've reached a certain threshold here -- the Internet is finally outstripping cable news completely," a poster using the handle PantsGrenades wrote on Reddit. "In fact, I wonder if we're inadvertently doing their work for them."

Their speculation was not limited to the events in Boston. The unusual confluence of tragic and suspicious events in the past week led many online to suggest that the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, might have been a terrorist attack as well, and that the ricin-laced letters mailed to politicians could have come from those behind the marathon bombing.

According to Murray Jennex, a crisis management expert at San Diego State University, the huge influx of online voices enabled by social media can be extremely helpful because eyewitnesses are holding cameras in almost every location.

But beyond the photos they upload, their speculation and theorizing don't necessarily lead to a more efficient resolution.

"There is just a lot of meaningless noise out there," he said, noting that law enforcement and disaster management institutions can be overwhelmed by useless tips in a crisis. "People see trends and patterns that aren't really trends and patterns."

Another problem with social media, he said, is that there is no way to tell who is a reliable source of information and who isn't. "People love to speculate and some people love to make the Web equivalent of crank calls."

On Friday morning, the Boston police temporarily pulled the online feed of their scanners and tweeted several warnings to the public to not endanger their investigation and officer safety with reckless online commentary.

And a growing backlash against the public shaming that spewed forth from online forums caused some posters to be chastened. "Reminder," one Reddit user posted. "Do not post personal information in the comments. This is raw incoming news, you could ruin an innocent person's life by spreading an incorrect name around."

But in many ways it was too late. The Internet is forever, as the saying goes, and the names of the innocent had already been circulated.


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