The April 15 Boston Marathon bombings left three killed and more than 170 wounded. In its immediate aftermath, online social networks were rife with reports and updates of what was going on. A user on Reddit, who was at the spot when the explosions occurred, set up a live-feed on the social news website and provided rapid updates. Photographs were in no short supply, nor were smartphone-grabbed videos, and they were widely circulated over Facebook and Twitter.

People wanted to help. They attempted to identify if runners and spectators were dead or alive, they tried to find clues in the pictures — if they could spot smoking guns that could lead them to suspects, etc — and they set up networks through which assistance in the form of money or food could be channelled quickly to those who would need it.

But lost in this onslaught of well-meaning gestures was the accuracy of reports coming out.

In a simple instance, a photo shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook showed a bespectacled blond girl jogging along toward the finish line. The caption reads: “See this little girl? She died today. She was running the marathon for the Sandy hook (sic) kids. She’s 8. Repost for respect of her.” It was later confirmed that she hadn’t died, but what if her father or mother had seen that picture?

On a larger scale, such free sharing of information that subverts systematic fact-checks easily lends itself to the perpetuation of hoaxes and unsubstantiated reports while simply not meaning to.

For many years now, social media has been fuelling a notion that it lets anybody using it to become a journalist. However, the foundation of traditional journalism doesn’t just rest on networking: it also depends on due process being accorded to stories — all the way from reporters getting their facts right to the information being presented sensitively.

The essential failing of a social mob, on the other hand, is the lack of context and consequent due process. The problem with online chatter is that after the pronouncement of a quick judgment, it tries to take matters into its own hands and, without much in the way, manages to. And when things start to go wrong, they go wrong really quickly.

Take Sunil Tripathi, for instance. Mr. Tripathi had the misfortune of becoming a victim of ‘social media journalism’.

A 22-year-old student of Brown University, Mr. Tripathi was suggested as a possible suspect by the users of Reddit, who overheard his name on the local police scanner.

He proved to be the perfect suspect as he has been missing, since March 16, under mysterious circumstances. After the initial Reddit thread, it was picked up by the ever helpful Twitterati, with the news eventually reaching Mr. Tripathi’s parents. This was eventually dismissed after a law enforcement intelligence bulletin identified the suspects of being of Chechen origin. But what do we take away from this?

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, people were jumping in to help, but they were also inadvertently sacrificing the accuracy of some of their claims at the cost of wanting to be in the thick of things — often leading to the sort of harassment that Sunil Tripathi’s parents and family faced. Of course, no one might be at fault here but with misinformation in the picture, the opportunity to commit mistakes is magnified.

For instance, on 4chan, the image-based web bulletin board, photos from the site of the bombings were analysed by its users to pick out people who had their backpacks missing. This was after FBI released images showing that the bomb was carried in a backpack. While 4chan’s users may have managed to zero in on the right suspects, it is highly dangerous and incendiary to claim that these people are in any way suspicious or should be suspects. After all, it’s a backpack.

On the upside, however, social media is also one of the best options around to quickly verify if an update was right or wrong, a consequence of having access to many people with the time to spare verifying them. In this regard, sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit can function as extensions of the traditional, as yet slower, structure. The mandate, of course, should be that discoveries made this way must be processed properly.

(With inputs from Anuj Srivas)

vasudevan.m@thehindu.co.in

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