Last week, Boston made news. The manhunt headlined newspapers and evening newscasts—and Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Accompanying the chaotic events was a misinformation disaster that cascaded through such social networking sites. The force of the false information and its consequences bring to light a potential problem within new media forums. Where are we getting our news, and should we trust our new nontraditional sources?
Suspicions that missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi was involved in the Boston Marathon bombing transformed into pseudo-news on Reddit and Twitter. Tweets such as “Police on scanner identify the names of #BostonMarathon suspects in gunfight, Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi,” circulated, even though neither individual had been identified as a suspect associated with the bombing. The police scanner didn’t say that “Mike” was Mulugeta’s first name, and it didn’t mention Tripathi at all. The damage continued as people dug up and shared information about both “suspects.”
What’s concerning is that with the advent of social networking unverified information has the potential to gain as much exposure as professional journalism. It’s hard to discern the credibility of a news source through a Twitter handle. However, last week’s events also pointed out a shift in how Americans receive their news. New media provide a platform for informal news—sites such as Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter make the dissemination of information relatively easy. Often, we check Facebook before checking professional news sources. In addition, social networking allows us to gain information from people not entangled in the biases of corporate media empires, who may almost serve as watchdogs for the media. Professional news services can be biased and prone to distributing false information.
But this means that everyone who has enough followers or online friends has the potential power to misinform on a large scale. The original tweet about the Boston Marathon suspects gained its information from Reddit, where a user who went to high school with Tripathi thought the photos of one of the suspects in the bombing resembled him. It’s unclear how that morphed into Tripathi being mentioned on the police scanner. What authority did Reddit and Twitter users have that made their statements credible? Why did so many others retweet or share the information without verifying it?
Our new ways of gaining information are increasingly more candid and word-of-mouth. They stem from assumed but nonexistent authority. Those who share information through social networking platforms are not held accountable for misinformation the way professional journalists are. Traditional news sources are biased and compromised, but journalists cannot recklessly misinform without regard to serious consequences. In contrast, social network users do not have jobs at stake when they send a misleading tweet or share false news. This lack of accountability, combined with the dangerous and growing power of new media, led to the misinformation cascade following the Boston Marathon bombing. If left unchecked, it may lead to more information disasters that damage the lives of real, innocent people.
Preventing a similar event is easy, in theory. Before retweeting or sharing someone’s status, make sure the source is credible. Sharing information based on speculation, if it can be harmful to someone’s reputation, is unethical even if you’re not a professional journalist. The damage done to Tripathi, who is still missing, and his family, cannot be undone despite the apologies of those involved. It’s the moral obligation of everyone who has the power to share news or distribute information to take caution and prevent another misinformation disaster.