I have always been fascinated by the power of social media, and its increasing role in our everyday. With Twitter, Facebook and others, we are now in the generation of instant updates and information dissemination. With all important news re-tweeted within seconds, the world is aware of current events within seconds. There has been a significant amount of discussion on how that has shaped our generation.
During the aftermath of the Boston bombings, this discussion has stirred up again. I was watching Fareed Zakaria GPS, where they had Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen from Google as guests to discuss how online data has played a role during such events. They discussed how online information has helped them track terrorists with the help of phone data and how it has helped law enforcement focus their efforts. There is a wealth of information that governments can gather based on online history, such as phone records, websites visited, etc. People’s awareness and resultant activism has also increased in this social age. With CCTVs, Reddit users went through the images are tried to identify suspects- a seemingly time intensive activity which would have taken law enforcement a long time to go through.
But here is the other side of the coin: the sad story of Sunil Tripathi. By looking at grainy CCTV images, some Reddit users incorrectly identified the suspect as Sunil, a classmate who had taken a leave of absence and was missing. Along with Sunil, there was a rumor about hearing the name Mike Mulutega on police radio. This information was re-tweeted within seconds and Sunil’s Facebook page was overloaded with nasty comments. The following morning, the police confirmed it was Tsaernev brothers. But the damage was done- can we really Google either of them without getting all this information? It is a part of their online history for ever. The tragedy of the story is Sunil Tripathi’s body was found in a river a few days later- we won’t know if this misinformation has anything to do with it, but the anxiety to his family and friends is real.
This raises an important question in my mind- with everyone able to update any information, who is validating the information? Such information is defamatory and slanderous, and once it is out there, can we really take it back? Earlier this week, Associated Press news feed being hacked and incorrectly reporting news that White House was attacked and the President was injured. Within seconds, the stock market crashed even before the news was validated. It reminds me of how prone the online world is to rumors.
As online users, I think it is our responsibility to make sure we don’t spread news that might incite panic, especially when it is not validated.
Do you agree?