The Boston Marathon bombing was a strong example of how news reporting and consumption have changed substantially in the zero-delay era of contributory journalism. The major news networks stuttered, choked and backpedaled. Social media was used to break the story of the second bombing suspect’s capture after one of the most dramatic manhunts in history.
The world first learned about the capture of the second bombing suspect through the Twitter feed of Boston Police Chief Ed Deveau. CNN, MSNBC, FOX and the other news outlets learned from that tweet at the same time the rest of the world did. No news desk, no editor, no copywriter, no fact checking. By the time the networks ran it everyone with a smartphone already knew it. And accepted it as truth.
Social media played a key role in the Boston Marathon manhunt but also showed ominous signs of a new media that was invented before the rules to best employ it were developed. That’s dangerous. It’s also a common theme in new technology from the atom bomb to genetic engineering. The technology is developed before the rules to best employ it are considered. Then, the rules get made up in a fairly abrasive and hurried process along the way. Whether it is news reporting, weapons proliferation or gene therapy, once the genie is out of the bottle it is impossible to stuff it back in. And inevitably, people get hurt and things get broken along the way to figuring out a better way.
The potential for disaster from empowering the everyman with instant media access became apparent during the Boston manhunt. Photos of men dressed in tactical-looking clothing with shoulder patches and carrying backpacks began circulating as a point of concern. People played fast and loose with whom these men were. The photos were shared again and again referring to the men in them as “persons of interest”. They weren’t. The situation became worse when a ricin-poisoning scare in Washington surfaced and an explosion happened at a fertilizer plant in Texas. It took only minutes for the self-appointed conspiracy theorists to weave together a tale few big fiction writers would have conjured. A photo of a young man with a vaguely “eastern” appearance was circulated as a person of interest. As the hysteria elevated he became so concerned for his safety he stayed in his house. The Internet junior G-men and conspiracy experts began to take on the feel of a lynch mob. Instead of tar and feathers they had Facebook and Twitter.
Each generation has its de-facto media that represents unimpeachable accuracy. As each of those media emerge and evolve “experts” claim the rules have completely changed with that new media. It happened with the invention of the printing press, it happened with radio, it happened with television and it has happened with the Internet and contributory social media.
The truth is, the rules do not change. Shoddy reporting is still shoddy reporting. Speculation is still completely different from recounting verified facts. And like all previous media, if there is simply too much signal traffic it is difficult to gain any real understanding of events until things calm down.
There is an integral way to teach the best employment of social media that lies within the medium itself. Because of its contributory nature, we, as users, can reach some consensus on how to best use social media. Once that consensus is achieved, it is self-proliferated through social media. It becomes a kind of social media moray, the same way common courtesies such as a handshake and saying “thank you” are culturally transmitted, but to an even greater degree since those conventions don’t cross cultures the way social media does. The later underscores the necessity for such a consensus because social media, unlike other norms, is not regional; it’s universal and instantaneous.
One of the most remarkable posts following the Boston attacks was a photo that surfaced on social media of a group of Syrians holding a banner that said roughly, “this is what we experience every day” on it. It also included a message of condolence for the bombing. At first blush there was an abrasive, mocking tone to the photo, almost as though the suggestion was, “Ha, now you have to deal with terrorism too.” It is a well know dictum that when people read something on the Internet they tend to default to the worst possible interpretation. But when I read it I thought back to the challenges of communicating quickly across cultures and with new media. The photo had been taken only minutes earlier and showed a big banner that took some time to prepare. I remembered Syrian friends and how they often phrase something. I also remembered that, since I am not as skilled at foreign languages as these men are (I couldn’t write a banner in Arabic and post it on Facebook since my Arabic isn’t good enough) it would be very easy for me to be the “ugly American” and presume their English was perfect and they were being snide. I decided that would not be my interpretation though. Instead I decided the Syrians meant us sincere condolences and also desired empathy for their plight. That shift in perspective completely recalibrated the post for me and, I hope, for others when I shared it. It was an example of author Stephen Covey’s dictum, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
With these experiences in mind I’ve drafted my own set of editorial reminders for social media. It ‘s by no means the de-facto style guide, but it’s a start point for me. It looks like this:
– At a minimum, think twice about what you post.
– At a minimum, think twice about what you read.
– If you wouldn’t want it said about you, don’t say it about anyone.
– If you post your opinions, you’ve granted license to tolerate others’.
– What you post never goes away, even if you delete it.
There are exceptions, and I am not an expert on this, you may feel differently and there may be times when this does not apply, but qualifiers go a long way to make things civil and safer.
Social media may be the most powerful resource of this century. It crosses borders instantly without restriction and grants power previously reserved for only a few. In the Arab Spring the power of social media toppled governments. It has made instant heroes, and villains. More than perhaps any single technology man has developed it has empowered and united us. How we decide to make use of it as it continues to evolve will say a lot about the trajectory of our future.