The Boston Police Department search for the Boston Marathon bomber in Watertown brought out the best and the worst aspects of Twitter.
In the end, the coverage was a triumph for both the citizen and the traditional media, but it also brought out the strengths and weaknesses of both.
It was a tale of the good, the bad and the outright ugly.
First, the good. As has been the case over the past half decade, the best place to follow breaking news has been online on networks like Twitter. The first viral bit of information that broke the news was a call attention notice put out by MITAlert (of Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that read: "There is a report of an Active Shooter in the vicinity of Building 32 Stata Center. Stay clear of the area. Follow up: emergency.mit.net". (At this point of time, the connection between the incident and the Boston Marathon bombing was not yet established.)
Quickly the attention shifted to Watertown area where a mix of local reporters and citizens started live tweeting the events. The most dramatic first images was from Twitter user Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) - a Watertown resident who witnessed the shootout between the cops and the suspects out of his residence and posted images, including that of a bullet hole that pierced his office wall. It led to another Twitter user commenting that Kitzenberg probably deserved the award for the "accidental journalist" of the night. A few local reporters, including Taylor Dobbs (@taylordobbs) of Huntington News, an independent student newspaper, and Seth Mnookin, a teacher at MIT's Science Grad programme, were among the first on the spot and provided by-the-minute details of what was going on.
Now, on to the bad: While the details from the ground at Watertown went viral on Twitter, some users of Reddit, the crowdsourcing forum, were indulging in a dangerous game of speculation.
Apparently based on information from the Boston Police Department scanner, they identified the two Marathon bomb suspects as Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi. The transcript of the Boston Police Department was put out on the forum, and a provocative thread titled "Is the missing student Sunil Tripathi the marathon bomber" went viral.
Sunil Tripathi is a 22-year-old student of Brown University student who went missing mysteriously from his home on March 16, and has been the topic of discussion after his Indian family put out a Facebook page "Help us find Sunil Tripathi" that included a rather emotional video from his family members, who live in Pennsylvania, urging him to find his way back home.
The case has been under police investigation for some time now. But no sooner did Reddit put out the speculative thread, the situation turned into an ugly witchhunt.
There was a six hour interval between the Reddit post and the official word from police that the prime suspects were brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
And now, the outright ugly: A lot can happen in a matter of just a few hours online. Several small online publications and independent journalists jumped the gun in the race to be the first with the information and started posting information on Sunil Tripathi, including some from people who knew him that they probably identified him based on the surveillance videos that the FBI had posted. The physical similarities between Sunil Tripathi and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev notwithstanding, the entire was built on speculation.
Caught up with a mob mentality, a lot of people started pulling out photographs of Sunil Tripathi from the Facebook page that his family had set up, and started putting out provocative messages. One even criticised him for wearing a 'Che Guvera' t shirt, mocking at the habits of rich kids with Left ideologies.
The distraught family of Sunil Tripathi, have since talked out against the racist mob mentality of social networks and the slowness of the police to react to the misinformation campaign. Reddit has apologised and pulled out the damning thread. And even the Boston Police Department have clarified that neither Sunil Tripathi nor Mike Mulugeta were ever named as primary suspects on their scanners.
The events on is a good indicator of the strengths and the weaknesses of the online citizen media. Where it comes to breaking news and eyewitness accounts, it is an invaluable resource. But the medium still lacks the trust worthiness that the traditional media brings.
Maybe sometimes, the traditional media is slow in confirming news. But it is built on a very prudent value: better late than sorry.
(Karthik Subramanian writes on technology and the internet for The Hindu. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)