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The Digital Self: We need new rules for citizen reporting on the real-time Web

the digital self  we need new rules for citizen reporting on the real time web headerIf there’s one thing the Boston Marathon bombing case teaches us, it’s that most of us haven’t a clue how to responsibly use the real-time powers of the Internet in times of ongoing turmoil. Not you, not me, not CNN, not Reddit. We failed – and we should to never let it happen again.

Were this a column about media, we could on focus on the face-plants of traditional players. For example, the New York Post and Fox News screwed up so badly that at least three people’s lives were unjustly tossed into the pit of condemnation because of willfully false or sloppy reporting. Even the Associate Press – the freaking AP! – reported that a suspect was in custody when one wasn’t. Do you know what it’s like to think the person who just killed your 8-year-old boy with a backpack bomb is in police custody, then to learn that that’s not true? Neither do I – so let’s just assume it’s horrific. 

When a juicy tidbit of new info comes over our Twitter feeds, or shows up in a Reddit comment, it’s next to impossible to not want to believe that information.

But we’re not here to talk about traditional media. The Boston debacle wasn’t only a failure of the working press; it was a failure for a loud chunk of Web users who misused the medium of real-time publishing on the Internet to spread damaging misinformation – that is to say, we, the public, screwed up too. We took to Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and Facebook. We upvoted theories and made damning photoshopped circles around random people’s heads. We speculated and griped and tweeted, retweeted, reposted, and regurgitated. We tossed baseless bullshit around like we were having a damned water balloon fight. 

True, many of us kept calm. Plenty of reporters held back, waited to get the story right. A good chunk of us even tried to restrain those mad, untrained detectives who apparently had PCP-levels of adrenaline pumping them up to solve the case. But instances of prudence, reasonableness, and accuracy were a whisper beneath the bellicose postulation of the raucous mob, drunk on real-time information. 

Just as we too often regrettably text an ex-lover after a night of drinking, we titillated our info-inebriated selves with seductive visions of sleuthing grandeur, of getting to the bottom of the horrid thing before anyone else – of winning the Internet. We confused the facts and impeded the investigation (according to law enforcement) and caused even more pain for families like that of 22-year-old Brown University student Suni Tripathi, who has been missing since March (and is still missing), and whose name will be forever linked to the deadly bombing in Boston despite his innocence. This week – let’s all hope it’s a boring one – our collective head pounds from over-indulgence.

How do we get beyond this, so we don’t create a Boston-like debacle next time around?  

Rule #1: Real-time information is often wrong information

This should go without saying (except that last week proves it needs to be repeated, over and over): Real-time information is often worse than incorrect; it can be dangerous.  

When a juicy tidbit of new info comes over our Twitter feeds, or shows up in a Reddit comment, it’s next to impossible to not want to believe that information. So we share it – sometimes with caveats (“Is this true?!”), often without them. But the truth is, that is the last information we should believe, and definitely the last we should share. Especially in cases of life and death, until something is verified by authorities, we should all treat it as wrong – and keep it to ourselves, as much as possible. 

Rule #2: When it comes to serious news, Twitter is not a game

Like many of you, I sat enraptured by my Twitter feed last week, especially on Thursday night and Friday, as the almost unbelievable manhunt for bombing suspects Tamerian and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev unfolded. I too scoured feeds and postings of all types in the quest for new information – and to be one of the first to retweet that new information. I know this may seem insensitive, but the fact is, doing this is thrilling, almost fun. It feels like a game.

But it’s not a game – and treating it as such is stupid and irresponsible, because, as mentioned above, most of the real-time information is either wrong or at least unverified. It should have been ignored. Instead, we republished and amplified it endlessly for our own strange satisfaction. 

Rule #3: What happens on Reddit does not stay on Reddit

Boston proves that we must all acquire a better understanding of what posting something to the public Internet is: publishing. 

On the FindBostonBombers subreddit, which has since gone private, commenters repeatedly stated that the community’s tireless “investigation” of the Boston Marathon bombing was completely harmless, as long as it stayed on the pages of Reddit. Perhaps that’s true – but it is also completely unrealistic. Reddit is a public forum. And when people find something interesting on a public forum, they often share it on other social media networks. Or a reporter writes about what’s being said on that forum. From there, it rockets around the world in an instant. Indeed, that’s what happened last week, both before and after the FBI released photos and video of the  Tsarnaev brothers.

This false belief that what you post online in one place will stay in place was not only a mistake made by redditors. The same thing happened on Twitter, 4chan, Facebook, and Tumblr, all of which played a damaging role during last week’s investigation. But the point remains the same: Only publish something online if you believe the whole world should see that information. Because it very well could.

(Privacy side note: This is a good rule of thumb for your private life as well; i.e. don’t put something on Facebook that you wouldn’t be OK with the whole world knowing or seeing.) 

Rule #4: Posting someone’s photo counts as posting personal information

This one is directed at the Reddit community in particular, but applies to all portions of the Web. 

When you post someone’s photo, you are taking a big step toward revealing a vast amount of personal information about that person – “doxing,” as the cool kids call it. 

This point was clearly lost on parts of the Reddit community – a community whose primary guiding rule is “post no personal information,” a community that lashes out when doxing happens to one of their own, no matter what that person did. While moderators across various subreddits repeatedly posted this hard Reddit rule for users, it seemed to only apply to actually posting names, contact information, home addresses, or social media profiles to comment threads. Posting a photo with someone’s face circled was fair game. 

It was wrong of the Reddit moderators to allow this kind of activity, especially when doing so could have lead to vigilante action against innocent people.

Rule #5: Don’t publish police scanner chatter

Much of the misinformation from Thursday night and Friday (including, it seems, the inaccurate naming of Sunli Tripathi as a suspect in the bombing) came as a result of people listening to police scanners, which can be found streaming all around the Internet. 

Eventually, law enforcement told everyone to stop posting what was being said on the Boston police scanners, as it impeded the investigation and potentially put officers in harms way. We should heed that demand from here on out; the next time tragedy strikes, listen to the scanners if you must, but don’t spread around what’s being said as if it’s verified information – it isn’t.

Last word

There are likely far more rules that we need to establish – I invite you to suggest some in the comments below. But regardless, it is imperative that we figure them out as quickly as possible – because right now, it’s obvious that the existence of disparate real-time information has got the better of us. 

People are going to continue to discuss breaking news of all types on the Internet. We will continue to speculate and share information – and we should. In past cases, like during the Virgina Tech massacre in 2007, information from social media was invaluable. But the next time something like last week’s horribly exhausting events happen – and we all hope it never to happen again – we need to have some ground rules to keep the unintended consequences to a minimum. And it is all of our responsibilities to make sure that happens.

(Image copyright Boston Herald)

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