There are about as many opinions as there are people when it comes to what social media’s role in news is or should be. The only incorrect statement is probably that it hasn’t had an impact at all. It’s clear that instant social sharing has wreaked a massive overhaul of how we consume news and interpret news, but the nature of that change has been more elusive.
It’s hard to understand a massive social transformation such as social media (and the Internet itself) while the transformation is occurring – we’re in maybe the third extraordinarily significant time of social upheaval in human history, along with the rise of agriculture and civilization and the Industrial Revolution. The Internet has completely changed the way we interact with each other and the world. But, it’s hard to see it that way, when we don’t know where that transformation is going. And, because we don’t know, mistakes are made.
Mistakes are instructive, even if sometimes the instruction isn’t quite worth the price paid. That’s probably true in the case of Sunil Tripathi, and what transpired on Reddit in the direct aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. A connected community of people, no doubt mostly with good intentions, convinced itself that it could be just as adept, if not more so, at tracking down criminals than the police department or the FBI. And, why not? What is the Internet, if not empowering?
However, as empowering as the Internet is, the results of that Reddit net investigation should be equally sobering. If witch hunts are defined by the persecution of the innocent, let this fall under that definition. There were no shortage of theories on Reddit that day, but the one that really seemed to take hold was the suspicion that Sunil Tripathi, an Indian-American student at Brown University that had been missing (and is still missing), was behind the attacks. The use of police scanners and trawls through online photos were cited, and the suspicion grew into full-blown accusations, to the point where mainstream media got involved. It was also completely inaccurate.
The mainstream media has plenty of reasons to feel a deep sense of shame after the bombings, for citing unproven reports from Reddit and other sources, both online and not. But, that’s a failure of institutional control. What’s to be done about social media, where by rule there is no institutional control? Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, issued an apology to the family of Sunil Tripathi recently – a largely ceremonial one, backed by proper apologies from specific users who were involved in wrongly accusing the student. That’s great, but it’s no guarantee something like this won’t happen again. Not unless the Internet – which we can use interchangeably with the public at large – allows this kind of a mistake to be instructive.
That starts with recognizing that for all our access to information, we aren’t superhuman, and we aren’t better equipped to do a job than the people who have been trained to do it. Internet users who are trying to carry out their fantasies of living an episode of Sherlock are going to find that the real world has real consequences – in this case, possibly forcing law enforcement officials to release pictures of the actual suspects before they would have preferred to. If you’re not a detective, you are not better suited to be a detective than a real detective.
Some, like a Reddit user interviewed for this BBC article, defended the actions of Reddit by saying that social media can give police useful leads, and that the speed of social media can lead to the quick fixing of mistakes – something the media can learn from. Unfortunately, the things he is saying are exactly the mistakes that need to be avoided. The mainstream media’s job requires it to be as wrong as little as possible – to have no mistakes to correct. It’s failing at that job, and that’s why mainstream media is mired in a crisis of credibility. You can only make mistakes and hop back and correct them so often, before people just stop listening to you altogether. After all, when it gets to that point, who is to say your corrections are accurate, either? As for leads – well, as this case shows, that’s why you’re supposed to give those to the police directly, not publicly.
It’s hard to say what the prescription for these problems is, or if there even is one. But, maybe it’s patience. Bombings are scary, and when the perpetrators aren’t caught immediately, there’s the fear of more bombings. That makes sense. But investigations take time, even for those whose job it is to do investigations. If everyone was a little more patient, Tripathi’s name would have never been dragged through the mud. And, it’s worth remembering that for all that Internet detective work, nothing that happened on Reddit sped up the capture of the Tsarnaev brothers. It’s arguable it even slowed the process down.
It would be unfair not to mention that Reddit has been the site of successful investigations of this sort in the past, but it seems like the same results could be achieved if those same people quietly offered their investigations to the police. Or, maybe not. It’s hard to say, but these are the questions we’re going to have to keep asking as social media becomes an entrenched part of society. After all, it’s OK for mistakes to be instructive – it’s not OK for mistakes to become acceptable.