April 23, 2013, 2:27 PM — Social media can be invaluable in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or breaking news story. It can also give you a dangerously distorted picture of what's going on.
When a coworker told me about the Boston Marathon bombings minutes after they happened last week, for example, I immediately signed on to Twitter and got swept away by the flood of information. But, like a flood, social media can suck you so far below the surface so suddenly that you find yourself gasping for air, unable to find truth in the murky depths.
Social networks offer valuable, factual sources, but in the precious hours following a disaster, they become a real-life version of the Telephone game we played as kids: One kernel of truth gets so distorted, so exaggerated, that it turns into a rumor at best and a malicious lie at worst.
We shake our heads now at the obvious gaffes--the photo of a man on a roof overlooking the marathon that went viral on Facebook, and the CNN report of a suspect in custody that flashed through Twitter feeds in an instant. That man on a rooftop was just a man. That suspect-in-custody report was false. Those were last week's errors. But every time disaster strikes, misinformation reigns and the Internet loses its collective mind.
It's all too easy to get sucked into a social media maelstrom during a catastrophe. But a few major missteps following the Boston Marathon bombing provide a helpful guide of dos and don'ts, should we choose to follow them.
Do: Choose your sources wisely
It seems obvious enough: Random people on the Internet probably are not the best sources of information. But it's a tough lesson to learn when even high-profile news organizations get the facts wrong, as we learned last week when CNN falsely reported that police had apprehended a suspect in the Boston bombings.
The New York Post also drummed up controversy by publishing a photo of two guys wearing bags at the site of the explosion, asking readers to submit information about the "Bag Men." Only one problem: Those two weren't terrorists, just bystanders.
So who can you trust? Perhaps no one. But those tweeting on the ground from Boston, such as reporters for the Boston Globe, proved reliable sources. Eyewitnesses at the scene, particularly those with reporting backgrounds, tweeted quick, factual updates that were useful in getting the news out to the local community. NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin and Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa were also important additions to a curated crisis Twitter list (and also just in general).
But even the most high-minded reporters and citizen journalists get the facts wrong sometimes.
"Don't shame people on Twitter for passing on speculation," Slate social media editor Jeremy Stahl wrote in a column following the Boston bombings. "Because of the nature of breaking news, factual mistakes will be made and everyone will make them. Let he who is without sin cast the first critical tweet."
Don't: Play Internet detective
The New York Post's "Bag Men" cover was the most public example of a photo taken out of context, but people all over the Internet were sharing photos of bystanders at the site of the explosions, trying to figure it out if they were suspects.
A small group of Redditors decided to take on the challenge of finding the Boston bomber, though the FBI ended up pinpointing the suspects using surveillance footage from a department store. Internet sleuths tuned in to the Boston Police Department scanner live-tweeted all updates heard over the air, which resulted in innocent people being named as suspects. Their photos were plastered all over the Internet.
As The Atlantic Wire noted, journalists know that police scanner conversations are full of unconfirmed information and tend not to report on them until facts are confirmed. Officials last Friday asked the public to stop reporting police scanner activity to curb the spread of misinformation.
When news of December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, hit social media with early news reports naming Ryan Lanza as the suspected shooter, people immediately tracked him down on Facebook, circulated his photo, harassed his friends, and reposted his status updates as if they were clues to his motive. Of course, now we know that the Newtown killer's name was actually Adam Lanza.
Some have branded the Twitter detectives and their ilk vigilantes, but perhaps, like most of us, the amateur investigators got caught up in the swirl of violence and were desperate to make sense of it. A Reddit moderator posted a public apology (since taken down) to the family of an innocent man that the forum had painted as a culprit in the chaos of the M.I.T. shooting and subsequent police chase.
Do: Learn from past mistakes
The Boston Marathon bombing is the most recent and most obvious example of a tragedy that spawned an outpouring of emotion on social media. Many bystanders captured the explosions on shaky smartphone footage and shared those clips on Vine, YouTube, and Twitter. Then there was the aftermath: Twitter photos of bloody limbs, and constant speculation over the suspects' identities.
Social networks were also used to communicate and find facts in the wake of the bombings. Massachusetts officials encouraged people to send Facebook messages rather than make cell phone calls and clog the network in the hours following the explosions. The FBI used YouTube to post surveillance video of the suspects, and journalists circulated photos on Twitter. Police officers tweeted steadily to communicate updates as they unfolded.
CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.
But it's easy to spread rumors on social networks--much easier than without a smartphone and an Internet connection--because all it takes is the click of a button. Retweet on one network, share on another. You don't even have to offer your own commentary; simply click and forget. And, as one of the New York Post's "bag men," an innocent athlete whose sole mistake was being photographed with a bag on a tragic day, learned, social media can turn your life upside down in an instant.
"Sometimes they rise to the occasion and sometimes they fall flat," NPR's Andy Carvin said of online communities during Friday's International Symposium on Online Journalism.
Sometimes those communities rise and fall in the span of a few hours, as we saw most recently following the Boston bombings, but also in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings and Hurricane Sandy.
Carvin said it's easy to blame social media for the rapid spread of misinformation, but it's up to journalists to confirm facts and address rumors instead of buying into the hype. There are plenty of lessons to be applied on both sides during the next crisis, but they might not stick.
"I hope Reddit learns from this," one commenter posted in the (now private) apology thread.
"We're like goldfish," another responded. "Seven minutes from now nobody will remember anything bad happened at all."