THE United States intelligence community is still rushing to piece together the evidence related to the planning and execution of the Boston Marathon bombings. But a parallel and equally energetic investigation is sorely needed into the spectacular role online social media played during that crisis.
Technology is now allowing almost everyone to be both a witness at the scene of a crime and a crime investigator. Police forces can expect a far bigger help in catching criminals but it also means that the danger of mob rule - of members of the public taking the law into their own hands - has never been higher. One thing is certain: The public management of any future terrorist crisis will be vastly different from anything we have known to date.
Within seconds after bombs exploded near the finishing stands at the Boston Marathon, the familiar competition between various media platforms developed. And, inevitably, when it came to sheer speed of news delivery, social media - particularly Twitter - won hands down as everyone on the ground rushed to upload pictures or tell a story.
Yet as Harvard University Internet journalism guru Hong Qu points out in one of the first media-related analyses of the Boston bombings, the initial relationship between various "content generators" was not about competition but about mutual dependency. In the first few hours of the crisis, newspapers had nothing apart from TV feeds. Television stations in turn ran the same snippets of news and jerky amateur videos uploaded to social media.
Meanwhile, Twitter users and bloggers vied with one another to get the attention of cable TV. Despite the universal availability of the Internet, nothing still beats television in promising instant, nationwide fame.
Within 24 hours after the attacks, "traditional" platforms reverted to form. Barring a few notable exceptions, established networks behaved responsibly - journalists refrained from idle speculation about the culprits or their motives until hard clues began to emerge.
None of this was the case in social media, where the frenzy of activity actually grew more intense as time went by. The initial small online community of real Boston eyewitnesses was quickly drowned by millions from around the world, all claiming to have some particularly useful contribution.
Wisdom of crowds
BUT the really significant development took place when the American authorities released mug shots of the suspects. Netizens, mainly grouped around the Reddit social news website, started flipping through their old cellphone pictures or school photographs, hoping to identify those wanted by the police.
This phenomenon, known as "crowdsourcing", is not entirely new: It was first observed in July 2011, when lone terrorist Anders Breivik struck in Norway, killing 77 people. Within hours of that atrocity, ordinary Norwegians were telephoning police, claiming to have pinpointed suspects. But the trend has now assumed a completely different dimension. Tens of thousands of people, like latter-day Sherlock Holmes detectives, offered their skills after the Boston bombings.
The results were not encouraging. Invariably, blame was laid on innocent people. The case of Sunil Tripathi, the young student of Indian origin who was wrongly accused of involvement and has now been found dead, is particularly tragic. But such terrible errors remain inevitable, for "crowdsourcing can quickly morph into mob-sourcing", warns University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, one of Canada's top specialists on the ethics of journalism and who has followed the phenomenon since its inception.
Crowdsourcing is here to stay, largely because technology makes it possible. Over two-thirds of all the closed-circuit television tapes recorded around the Boston Marathon came from privately owned cameras, theoretically available to everyone.
Face-recognition software will soon be within the reach of ordinary individuals, and pictures of millions of faces are there to be "mined" across the Internet. "There's nothing you can do about it," says Professor Charlie Beckett of Polis, a think-tank affiliated with Britain's London School of Economics.
At one level, the emergence of social media as a key player in any future crisis has its advantages. Social media helped spread the Boston police's description of the suspects to hundreds of millions of people.
And social media contained deeper clues about the terrorists. It was also the first source which the security services mined for information about the culprits.
Within 24 hours after the attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had compiled 10 terabytes of data with the help of software from Topsy Labs, a company that bills itself as having the only full-scale index of the public social web, and which has the capability to accurately map where specific tweets are originating from, despite the fact that only about 1 per cent of Twitter users "geo-tag" their tweets.
Conspiracies of the mob
YET, the drawbacks from crowdsourcing are also considerable. The overwhelming majority of such work produces false conclusions, wasting police time.
Furthermore, once it becomes clear that social media is a battlefield, terrorists will learn to use it. In the future, terrorists could establish a spoof presence online before an attack, and offer false "leads" after an attack in order to fool the authorities.
Equally ominous is the fact that crowdsourcing amplifies the already large number of conspiracy theories generated after any major terrorist outrage.
The Boston bombings have already spawned at least 10 conspiracy theories, from old favourites such as the allegation that the US government organised them, to the truly "original", such as the accusation against journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper, who allegedly "knew" about the attacks before they took place.
People who play the role of detectives are often not content to discard their theories just because the police have dismissed them. They usually recycle their ideas into conspiracies - the bigger the number of such potty ideas, the bigger the potential damage to the legitimacy and reputation of a country's justice system.
Speed over accuracy
BUT it is the traditional media of newspapers, radio and TV which is exposed to the biggest potential harm from the rise of online social media networks.
"Twitter has become one of the greatest tools as well as one of the greatest threats to true journalism," says Mr Mark Little, who runs Storyful, a business which links new outlets to established news networks.
Simply taking social media head-on by competing on the speed of news delivery without checking its accuracy can lead to disasters, as the CNN network found out when it rushed to broadcast what turned out to be false information about the arrest of an alleged Boston bomber, a full 48 hours before an arrest actually took place.
What seems to be happening to TV networks now is that they have lost the monopoly of "breaking news", of being the first with stories.
This is exactly what happened to newspapers when TV first became the dominant medium, and the loss is irretrievable. But TV networks should do what newspapers did - act as an intelligent filter of news, and provide added value and interpretation to raw information.
"Besides boots on the ground, news organisations also need an eye in the sky - someone charged with gathering information, deciding what's credible and what's not, and presenting it to readers," says Mr Jason Fry of Poynter, one of America's journalism institutes.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 29, 2013
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