Social Media and the Boston Marathon Bombings: The Changing Face of Trust

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On Monday, April 15 at 2:50pm, Twitter user @DeLoBarstool tweeted one of the first internet records of the Boston Marathon bombings. From that point on, social media users, citizen journalists and venerable broadcasters fell down the rabbit-hole of misinformation, spurred by an unprecedented eagerness to capture and respond to the first terrorist act on American soil since 9/11—when things like Facebook, Twitter and smartphones didn’t exist.

Over a week later, the conversation that frames the bombings and subsequent manhunt is not so much about old versus new media, but rather how the proliferation of digital and social tools have reframed the information ecosystem, resulting in an unprecedented and uneasy alliance.[more]

At the heart of the Internet maelstrom is social site Reddit, founded in Medford, Mass. in 2005. The site issued a very public apology to “innocent parties” harmed by its passionate and eager community whose speculation ran wild following the bombings. In particular: Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student whom the Reddit community targeted as “Bomber Two” hours before the FBI identified 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as their suspect. 

Reddit was not alone in spreading misinformation, though, as trusted sites from AP and CNN to The New York Post were brought to their knees.

CNN’s John King admitted that his incorrect announcement last Wednesday that a suspect was in custody was “embarrassing,” “a shot” against him personally and professionally and “a double kick in the head” because it took place in his hometown. Reuters reportedly fired its Deputy Social Media Editor Matthew Keys for tweeting about the manhunt with information he heard over police scanners, saying it violated a written warning from the company and that it wrongly associated Keys’ tweets with the news source. The resulting Catch-22, said Keys, is that Reuters requires employees to identify their affiliation with the company when tweeting, but fired him because his tweets were associated with Reuters.

The New York Post made several bold blunders, first reporting that 12 people had been killed in the explosions and then published a front-page photograph Thursday of two innocent students labeled “bag men” and claimed that investigators had a Saudi Arabian national suspect “under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital.” Rupert Murdoch himself took to Twitter in defense, claiming the “bag men” photo had been distributed by the FBI, but the move was quickly labeled by citizen journalist Seth Mnookin, professor of journalism at MIT, “a totally dishonest excuse.” 

Mnookin gained instant fame for live-tweeting from Watertown after he followed the police chase from MIT. Mnookin was one of many that tweeted what was later labeled as misinformation about suspects in custody. When asked in an interview with NPR about the ethics of live-tweeting, Mnookin said, “A thing I tried to do was as often as possible remind people that what they were getting from me was a sort of instantaneous, unedited snapshot of what was going on. And I tried to remind them that even if I was reporting something as being said to me by a police officer, that didn’t necessarily mean that it was going to end up being true, as was the case when they thought that they had a second suspect in custody and it turned out they hadn’t.” 

The Boston Bombings and subsequent manhunt became the backdrop for the world to witness the seismic shift in the ways we receive fast-breaking news, and ultimately who is delivering that news. As evidenced by the stream of reports following the explosions, viable journalists are sacrificing their assumed credibility to instead beat one another—and civilians—to the punch. “There is a reflexive reaction to pit emergent social media behavior against the traditional journalistic practices and norms,” notes Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. “This defensive posture is counterproductive for both sides. Rather than pointing out flaws in order to uphold one model over the other, we should appreciate the interplay between them with a sense of symbiotic dependence that ultimately produces a more participatory, accurate and compelling news cycle.” 

In the end, it was new technology that tracked down the marathon bombers as the FBI pored over 2,000 crowd-sourced digital images and closed-circuit video footage, as well as a reported ID from victim Jeff Bauman, who apparently saw Tamerlan Tsarnaev place the bomb that destroyed both of his legs.

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