Twitter after the Boston Marathon Manhunt

The remaining Boston Marathon suspect was finally apprehended late last night after a surreal 24 hour manhunt that resulted in locking down an entire metropolitan area. I highlight that word because if you, like me, even just glanced at twitter during this whole event you would think he had already been convicted. Yes, the Boston marathon bombing was an unbelievable tragedy. Yes, running from the cops does imply guilt. However, my issue in this post concerns the way in which events unfolded on Twitter in the few days after the bombing and the subsequent manhunt.

I am on twitter. You can follow me @geoffsal. Yet while I recognize twitter’s potential positive impact, I sometimes worry about it’s sever negative effects, especially during moments like this where speculation runs rampant.

During these kinds of crises, ones where the instantaneous dissemination of information is unlikely to be helpful or, as we saw on CNN, accurate, I find myself avoiding Twitter more intentionally (for the record, following Twitter during Hurricane Sandy was a different story). I find myself refusing to read early reports because for the most part the information that will be there is either superficial (such as identifying the race of the suspect and then speculating what racial factors might have led him to do whatever heinous act) or inaccurate (Saudi suspect anyone?).

In some discussions with friends on Facebook about this, one suggested you just read with a grain of salt. Yet it seems like when 90% of the information is bogus and even reputable sources are judiciously disseminating information that is merely what was reported on Twitter, from in some cases individuals listening to police scanners and tweeting information out instantly, it’s difficult to be discerning. International affairs professor Stephen Saideman wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the role of Twitter in all of this. He argued that while yes Twitter can easily disseminate false information or speculation that follows your own ideological biases, its strength is also that it can disseminate corrections very rapidly. So basically the argument is that Twitter can unfuck itself. The problem Twitter is addressing the very problem Twitter creates. Hence, my desire to just stay away and wait for someone to get it right rather than get it first.

Obviously there are numerous reasons for the inaccuracy of reports in the early hours. As reported, ironically, by the Daily Show, investigative journalism departments are reduced in size and resources thus leading reporting to be nothing more than reporting what the other guys are reporting. The chaos of the first few hours also contributes which results in witnesses being reported as suspects and so on. However, there is also this aspect of instant gratification within our society that gets played out in our desire for news.

One journalist on Twitter commented that it was funny to see the ambivalence between “give-me-news-now” and “give-me-correct-info” crowds and then said “Welcome to Journalism”. While it seems to be said in jest, I feel this is a serious issue that requires serious consideration about what is meant by responsible journalism. The kind of debacle that unfolded on CNN about the Boston Police having a suspect in custody when there was nothing of the sort should result in executive producers being shown the door. But we live in the Margaret #Wentegate era where even plagiarism is just worthy of a mild slap on the wrist or a shrug of the shoulder. Consumers of news media want info immediately and if we don’t give it to them they will switch the station. However, in response to Susan Delacourt I would argue that it is the responsibility of the media to resist that pull towards immediacy and get it right the first time. If not, you will, in my mind, be about as trustworthy as Twitter.

The second reason I avoid Twitter, especially during criminal events, is the bizarre mob mentality that such mass media mediums encourage. As noted at the beginning of this post, the guy apprehended late Friday night was simply a suspect. Yet all of Twitter, even some of the most reasonable people I follow, seemed ready to lock him up and throw away the key. Constitutional law scholar Emmett MacFarlane tweeted that the only way for this guy to get a fair trial would be to have his father represent him. There is a lot of truth to that, at least if you were following twitter that night.

To further exacerbate the kind of “mob mentality” or “witchhunt” that was going on, Senator Lindsay Graham suggested Obama treat the suspect as a enemy combatant which essentially undermines any constitutional protections this suspect might have. Granted there are certain instances where the delay of reading Miranda rights is acceptable, such as potential immediate threats to law enforcement or the public, as this post explain. Questions are limited to ones of immediate threat, not ones that could potentially be incriminating. Yet when “Miranda Rights” was trending in 3rd in the US shortly following the arrest, I guarantee you this was not the kind of reasoned argument that was being made.

So the question is what kind of role should social media platforms like Twitter play in the 21st century following this debacle. I suggest that it needs to be much limited. Especially with mainstream media. But perhaps we all need to resist the urge for immediate news and wait a few hours for accurate news. It will undoubtedly do us and society a huge service.

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