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The Moral & Media Failings of the Boston Bombing

Witnessing, as we all did, the events of Boston made me turn to the news. This was a mistake. Turning to social media was even worse.

A mismanagement of information, a bungling of data, a need to be first, all to sate our horror as opposed to deal with informed evidence, was on full display. We failed because we wanted to be first: with new news, with new facts, with new suspects.

But such events are precisely when we need to be more critical, more reflective, more engaged with evidence than ever – both because we become and are surrounded by a plethora of desperate, terrified, and outraged individuals; and, furthermore, the ramifications of failing to deal properly with evidence can have devastating consequences.

To deal properly with these means taking more time, which undermines the desire to quickly sate our curiosity and outrage: but so be it. This matters more than your or my outrage.

Human Centipede News: CNN and Reddit

CNN, in their bungled coverage of the Boston Bombing’s aftermath, was described by Jon Stewart as “the Human Centipede of news”. With one reporter claiming arrests to confirmation that no arrest (nor even identification of suspects) had been made, CNN displayed all the problems with media I’ve indicated before.

Then, we had the (falsely-named) “Internet” gather their digital magnifying glasses, while stroking their Twitter pitchforks, to deduce their own false suspects like Sunil Tripathi and Salah Eddin Barhoum. Here, amateur Sherlocks from places liked Reddit sniffed through blurry photographs, traced the alignment of facial features, height, clothes, astrological signs, or whatever else they could find, and linked these to their “evidence”.

These citizen sleuths took their fear and wove a net around innocent individuals, thus putting their desire for comfort after a horrible event above evidence-based reasoning.

To repeat: It is especially at tumultuous times - when we have no idea what happened or why or who did it - that critical reflection is most needed. And yet such a time is often when it is most abandoned.

What we witnessed was confirmation bias writ large: from among thousands of photographs, of course you can find someone who fits your idea of what constitutes a terrorist.

Every action (or non-action) can then be perceived as the actions of a terrorist: look how quickly he fled, look at what he’s wearing, how did he know to stand there/here, why did he run toward/away the fires, why did he wait five minutes instead of four minutes 59 seconds, why is he missing, staying away from the public, and so on. Nothing is done without some link to terrorism.

How your desperation can hurt an investigation

Consider this statement from the moderator of the now-deleted Reddit thread: “Find people carrying black bags… If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.” This, in itself, might be a good process.

After all, lead investigators were spending time going through thousands of images, videos, eyewitness reports again and again and again. One agent watched the same video segment 400 times, reports the Washington Post. Thus, it wasn’t the process that was problematic: it was the aftermath.

It was the disregard for full facts and evidence.

Do we really want unknown, anonymous, untrained and – most importantly - desperate individuals sifting through photographs of citizens to deduce who might be a suspect? Read in this context, that statement from the Reddit moderator appears rather creepy.

Yet, after doing the same thing – except with professional equipment and individuals – federal and local investigators arrived at two proper suspects. As WaPo points out, though:

“How [these] investigators sifted through that ocean of evidence and focused their search on two immigrant brothers is a story of advanced technology and old-fashioned citizen cooperation. It is an object lesson in how hard it is to separate the meaningful from the noise in a world awash with information.”

And it was this “information”, spread by social media, Reddit threads, picked up by legitimate organisations and journalists, that made their jobs harder. The WaPo article continues: 

“In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.”

Salah Barhoum, one of these wrongly accused, told the Huffington Post that he’s “going to be scared going to school… Workwise, my family, everything is going to be scary." This was a teenager featured on the front page of the New York Post, watching the Boston Marathon before the explosions, under the headline: “Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”

The Post, in their desire to be first, picked up on Barhoum’s widely circulated picture – circulated thanks to thinking like the Reddit moderator’s that “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images”. That spreads, their identities linked to being a suspect perpetuates, and in the vacuum of actual evidence, the “Internet” starts assuming such people are suspects.

Again: false accusations, as proper accusations, were reiterated by proper journalists, like Farhad Manjoo and Newsweek’s Brian Ries (most of these journalists have since apologised). Thus, many of us, who are sceptical of crowdsourced data during scary times, had reason to agree with such conclusions: proper journalists are claiming it, after all.

It is terrifying to think that sources I otherwise wouldn’t trust – amateur, terrified sleuths looking for answers – managed to perpetuate their rash conclusions such that it was believed by people I do trust.

What comes first

Desperation complicates proper methodology. The speed with which, for example, Twitter was keeping alive misinformation, spreading further falsities, and allowing otherwise smart people to get caught up in unjustified assumptions speaks to our confusion – but also to failure. As Farhad Manjoo said: “Caught up in the excitement of breaking news, I was one of many journalists who retweeted news that the Brown student was one of the suspects—a fact which, in the morning, I feel absolutely terrible about.”

Today we click Share, Retweet, Like, and other buttons to show our support, to convey our outrage, our concern. We’re paralysed behind monitors, looking down on cellphone screens, as somewhere in the world people die, suffer, live in chaos. We don’t want to appear cold-hearted, so we share; we don’t want to be uninformed so we Retweet links or evidence from people we think reliable – or perhaps that are just first.

But this seems to be doing more damage: we might sate our appearance of caring, but we undermine our actual goal of helping others.

As the blogger Drag0nista points out:

“In a way, it’s pointless lecturing people on social media to be more responsible with information. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. While it’s admirable to think that ‘breaking news is broken’ and that we should just step away from the tweetstream, many of us will continue to relish and share the excitement that comes from monitoring news events in real time.”

That excitement should, of course, be second – or third or fourth – place behind obtaining facts. It’s addictive: I certainly struggle to not Retweet or post links to further details on emerging cases.

But doing nothing is an option more of us should consider. What finally clinched this was when it became apparent that people’s incessant desire to post information on the Net was not only complicating police investigations, but their actions on the ground: their positions, numbers, movement and other tactical information was being published for the entire world to see.

It’s unlikely these people were trying to put the police in danger, of course: they were simply reacting to information. But they were reacting in the wrong way.

We’ve never had a time where we could each disseminate information immediately to hundreds or thousands of people instantaneously before: but now, we are all public newspapers, we’re all TV stations. Such places have a responsibility – which they either fail or live up to. When they fail, we call them out on it.

How would we feel if a news-station gave out information revealing the positions of police officers trying to catch a suspect? Presumably, we’d think it irresponsible. If so, we should recognise that each of us has this same responsibility: Even if we don’t have a million followers on Twitter, we don’t k now which of our tweets will be seen, which of our statements will be solidified as fact that sees the hunting of innocent teenagers.

I’m not asking for us to be silent, I’m asking us to be more responsible. How to act during a horrible situation might sound idealistic, but considering the ramifications here of innocent people being attacked, investigated and so on, all because a lot of us could not simply be silent, contemplative, or fact-check I think it is necessary.

Being more responsible and being more critical should of course also be the case with media outlets. To quote Drag0nista again, we could start getting proper news if

“…news media outlets and journalists showed more caution and respected the need for information to be verified, if they constructively refused our calls for immediate news gratification and gave us quality news and analyses instead.”

When we endanger innocent people’s lives, like students and police, merely to slake our fear, to comfort our confusion, then we are doing something wrong. When news media outlets bow to the pressure of being first, instead of the pressure to be factual, we have further problems. Yes, things are terrifying and unknown and confusing and people died. Yes, it’s horrible. But surely we don’t want to make a horrible situation worse, by giving in to our outrage, instead of trying to ameliorate it, by given into contemplation and critical reflection.

Image Credit: kentoh / Shutterstock

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