From spreading false rumors about everything associated with the bombing to showing extraordinary insensitivity and rank partisanship at a time when the nation should have come together, social media proved to be as much a hindrance as a help during the last few dramatic days following the Boston Marathon bombing.
A couple of innocents got caught up in social media’s hysteria and paranoia, pointing up not only the ubiquitous nature of Twitter, Reddit, and other sites, but also their potential for causing trouble for mainstream media.
In short order, forums like 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 on 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.
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.
Twitter featured perhaps the most irresponsible posters. Numerous tweets from liberals immediately blamed the attack on the right. Not to be outdone, some on the right blamed President Obama or radical Islamists. The latter might yet prove to be accurate but at the time, there was no evidence for stating it.
The speed with which information is sent out over social media is a problem. Haste in publishing leads to irresponsible speculation, false information, and unthinking criticism that sometimes goes over the line of decency and propriety.
And then there’s the paranoia. Alex Jones tweeted shortly after the bombing that the attack was a “false flag” operation by the Obama administration.
Jones suggested that the FBI orchestrated the bombings under the false flag of a terrorist organization in order to justify expanded security powers. The Boston attack, he theorized, was staged by the U.S. government to extend the reach of both the Dept. of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration.
“Just wait folks,” the 39-year-old Texan wrote. “#TSA groping you at sporting events coming soon.”
Jones posted a YouTube video further fanning the false-flag flames, saying that reports of a “controlled explosion” drill, scheduled to coincide with the race, was proof that the FBI was behind the Boston Marathon blasts.
A reporter working for Jones’ website InfoWars got to ask a question at the final press conference given by the police and Governor Patrick:
Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?
Of course, there were no announcements made over the loudspeaker telling marathon observers to stay calm prior to the bombing. This is pure fantasy. But it was a fantasy spread by social media.
There is little doubt that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites have enormous potential for both good and bad. Like the internet itself, trying to separate the two is impossible. But like any other freedom we enjoy, responsibility must attend its exercise. Otherwise, our jungle instincts will take over and unintended consequences will flow.