April 18, 2013
As social media sites have pelted out news of the Boston bombing, playing fast and loose with the numbers of the dead and injured and amplifying hearsay into a cacophony of confusion, one tweet seemed to say it all: "Dear Journalism: Get yourself together and report verified facts or don't report anything at all."
It was retweeted 34 times, a fraction of the number claiming that a U.S. bomb had "just" killed 30 people at a wedding in Afghanistan. Not until hundreds if not thousands of indignant reactions had accumulated did equally indignant posts emerge to point out that that bombing had occurred, but in 2002.
The Afghan wedding meme was a mere drop in the ocean (or at least a very large lake) of misinformation that's been churning around, much of it generated not by civilian tweeters but by legitimate news sources. On Wednesday, CNN had someone all but in jail before it had to backpedal. Early on, the New York Post reported that 12 people were dead and a "Saudi national" had been identified as a "person of interest." The New York Times and other outlets begged to differ, but the Post stuck to its story well into the evening.
Items disseminated or generated by crowd-sourced reporting included speculation that city officials had shut down cellphone networks to prevent their use to set off bombs, and the very speculative fingering of "suspects" in crowd shots by Reddit vigilantes.
These images, combined with the flurry of conflicting reports Wednesday, almost induce a longing for the days of the 6 p.m. news. We had to wait for information, but at least it was reasonably reliable and delivered in complete sentences.
A good deal of the story of the Boston bombing has been as much about how we're telling it as what we know. We've proved the perils of micro-reporting — tiny, unverified bursts of information — as an alternative to synthesized, more comprehensive articles. The wave of innuendo has been generated not just by amateurs but by professionals, who are now expected to deliver the play-by-play while they're still figuring out what happened. And like it or not, we're told, this is the direction things are going.
But grasping at "facts" — and the human tendency to hold on to the ones that satisfy us despite all evidence to the contrary — is hardly a product of the digital age. Richard Jewell, the man once suspected of setting off a bomb during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, was cleared within three months but lived the rest of his life in the shadow of that legacy. The "trench coat mafia" narrative that emerged from the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 was debunked quickly. There was no gang of goth-nerds who'd been bullied into violent rage. Still, the tragedy bears that imprimatur to this day.
Some suggest that platforms like Twitter and Reddit, rumor enablers though they are, can also play a role in swatting down falsehoods and mining data. Maybe so, but as of Wednesday afternoon, a sizable number of Twitter users were still raving about the Afghan wedding and the "U.S. imperialist media."
Whatever social media has to teach us about the relationship of incremental reporting and accuracy in the news, its lessons about the psychology of micro-reporting are potentially more revealing. To look at people's social media feeds is to see their own personal news crawls: what they think bears repeating, what they'll argue against, what rolls off their screens unnoticed. Mostly, though, it reveals how hungry they are to participate, especially when it comes to tragedies.
A lifetime ago, when President Kennedy was assassinated, Americans sought solace in binge-watching TV news, far from the action. And even in the wake of 9/11, before social media as we know it, most people's involvement was limited to making donations to the American Red Cross and forwarding emails about candlelight vigils.
Now there's an almost universal need to be in the mix somehow, a player not a spectator. The deluge of false information isn't a sign of irresponsibility and impatience as much as a desire not to be left out. Which means civilian tweeters and paid reporters actually have quite a lot in common.
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