It started with the false claim that a Saudi man was a suspect (he was actually a victim), something the networks ran with (including the rumour that he had been thrown into a cage) and were then forced to retract. Then there was a second “attack” at the JFK library that turned out to be an unrelated fire. Pundits weighed in uselessly, calling for the deaths of all Muslims in the world on Twitter or else somehow laying responsibility at the feet of the otherwise peaceful and democratic Tea Party (was Sarah Palin anywhere near the scene – we have the right to know). In the words of Michael Moynihan, “Three days in, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of who has been wrong about what.” Indeed, it’s been a screw-up of epic proportions.
But where the mainstream media missed something, social media was there to plug the gaps – accurately or otherwise. It was a Facebook user, David Green, who first posted a helpful high-res photograph of the suspect Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Pictures from the siege in Watertown were later captured by ordinary Joes and put up on Youtube, only for the networks to seize and distribute them. Amateur detectives abounded. Images of the suspects released by the FBI were posted on social networking sites, allowing people to post up their own pics of folks who looked a bit like them and so track their movements. Some evil and some good came of it. Poor 17-year-old Sala Barhoum – who was entirely innocent – was fingered by Reddit readers and ended up on the front page of the New York Post as a chief suspect. This morning (UK time) the talk of the offices was that the missing student Sunil Tripathi was one of the killers – and that turned out to be very wrong, too. On the other hand, Reddit proved fastest with coverage and there’s a good reason why so many networks and newspapers decided to report it as a source. Take a look at Reddit right now and you’ll note a mix of interesting journalism on what’s happening in Watertown, amateur detective work, screeds against amateur detective work and messages offering sympathy for the victims. The habit of mainstream media in presuming that social forums operate with one voice are misplaced.
So do not blame Twitter or the blogosphere for anything that the networks happen to get wrong. The bigger culprits are a) the tendency of rolling news to report everything and anything without waiting for all the facts to come in and b) the habit of pundits of feeling that they have to offer a guilty party and a political analysis before the dust has even cleared. Social networks are just doing their unpaid, organic thing of collating random thoughts. The mainstream media is supposed be a little more selective and sober.