The Best and Worst

This has been one of those weeks when both the best and worst of social media has been on display. I know you could arguably say that about most weeks, but this one has felt quite an extreme.

The bombings at the Boston Marathon have been at the heart of all things news and social-centered, and perfectly typify this heightened presentation of the good and bad. In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, calls went out for blood to be donated, Twitter was used to convey messages to people stuck in buildings sealed off by the security services, and any number of messages of reassurance and support were posted by the concerned mass of people seeing the news unfold via both traditional and social media.

In the day or two following, the wheels started to come off in various ways, as the line between news and speculation blurred and rolling news increasingly looked like it was taking its ‘intelligence’ from random stuff posted on various social channels, leading to erroneous claims of arrests and descriptions of suspects that hadn’t come from any official source.

Along the way, certain communities, like 4Chan and Reddit, decided to start crowdsourcing intelligence, using their collective brainpower to review photos and video from the site and identify anyone acting suspiciously. I’m sure that the initial intention was to provide real and useful input to the authorities, but as I scanned an ever-growing page of photos on Wednesday, the value of the exercise began to look dubious. On many of the images users had even sketched overlays showing the putative outlines of pressure cookers in backpacks being carried by people who, let’s just say, were mostly not white.

When specific individuals in the photos were named and their Facebook pages linked, it was clear that things had got out of hand. Reddit began to scrub posts giving these details from the subreddit and one particular ‘suspect’, seeing his name in the frame, announced that he was heading to the authorities to explain his presence at the race. Even then some contributors seemed highly reluctant to let go of the exercise, which even many redditors were acknowledging had become a witchhunt.

And as I write this, a showdown which may or may not be related to the bombings is happening around MIT. One police officer is confirmed dead, but little else is definite.  Yet the same swirl of speculation mixed with concern and outrage is filling my social timelines.

All social media does is reflect the society its participants form – it can’t really do anything else. But weeks like this one can make it seem like our reflection is harder to face than usual.