Coverage Of Bombing Suspects Could Change Social Media

by · April 22, 201313 comments

In the wake of tragedy, the Internet and social media sites can be the most precious resources people can have. But the can also be the most dangerous. There’s not a trained journalist in the world that hasn’t sat, open-mouthed, at the irresponsible and erroneous reporting of speculation and innuendo we’ve seen in the last week. From false reports of arrests to immediate assumptions of one political group or nationality’s involvement.

While I wish the mistakes and short-sightedness was limited to amateur media, much of which is found in today’s blogosphere, the so-called “professionals” mucked it up just as bad. Buzzfeed did a nice run down of that catastrophe, but did so in the URL of a post they originally ran that erroneously reported the news as well. The FBI even lambasted media that messed that up.

Still, there were two faux pas (pas’s ?) I believe have the potential to change social media forever.

Imagine you are Salah Barhoun, a 17-year-old high school student, and your picture is on the cover of the New York post with an article that identifies you as an alleged bagman in the crime. Imagine that 4chan and Buzzfeed are fueling viral posts with pictures of you walking with your backpack around the bombing site before it happened. Imagine you have to rush to the police on Tuesday to clear your name but can’t possibly shake the suspicion of those who see you walking down the street in today’s fractured media world where rumor and assumpion rule.

Salah Barhoun could potentially sue every website that carried his photograph

Would you potentially think you had a case to sue for libel? I sure would. And no, the word “alleged” doesn’t clear the media from wrongdoing. If he were alive, you could ask Richard Jewell about that. He went from hero to suspect to hero to paydays from CNN and NBC because he was falsely identified as a suspect in the Olympic Park bombing of 1996. No, he wasn’t able to shut either network down due to the heftiness of the fines, but what kind of financial coffers do many of today’s blogs have?

Those were the days when traditional media was all there was. Today, the world is different.

Thursday night and Friday as the manhunt exploded, so did the irresponsibility of media and non-media like. The Today Show’s Facebook stream even featured an individual who named the “white hat” suspect. The only problem? The name was mentioned over a police scanner but was never officially identified as a suspect. NBC, Buzzfeed and others reported the name as well. Then later recounted. But the recounting won’t take back the fact that Sunil Tripathi, if he is in fact not connected to the bombing, may forever have fallout because his name was linked to the act. If he turns out to be one of the bombers, does it make it right that, without facts, people were reporting his name as a suspect, pleading that he be killed?

What we saw last week was what anarchy looks like. No rules. No constraints. No justice. No government. Just the will of the (under-informed) people running amok. Thankfully, it was online in conversations and on in our streets. But that doesn’t make it right. It also doesn’t make it legal.

With a world full of media members — professional and amateur — where the lines blur between, someone is going to step up and test the judicial system’s tolerance for such reporting. If Barhoun, Tripathi or their families decide their peaceful lives, privacy or safety was or is compromised, they could file suit against any website that carried the pictures, the names or the claims. Can you imagine how many websites that entails?

While the laws, burden of proof and standards are quite different in Britain, anyone who retweeted a BBC story that falsely reported Lord Alistair McAlpine was a child molester was subject to a financial penalty and apology, forced by the courts. Kinda makes you wonder what would happen to you if the laws in the U.S. were the same, right? Post a link to that 4chan thread or Buzzfied article and YOU could be subject to penalty for helping drag Barhoun’s face through the mud. Or indicate Tripathi should be arrested, imprisoned, punished or killed.

Of course, every bit of this conversation is conjecture. No lawsuits have been filed, to my knowledge. But the potential is there. It will be the next time blogs and media get hold of an alleged assailant or bombing suspect, too.

At some point, someone will sue the bejeezus out of these websites. And they will win.

Can 4chan sustain millions in legal fees and damages? Buzzfeed? Your blog?

The justice system, at least in the United States, is reactive rather than proactive. As such, it takes the courts years to catch up with cultural shifts, especially in communications. The first lawsuits effecting social media only emerged in the last few years. They’ll keep coming. And soon, they’ll change the way we are able to report, retort and even retweet.

Buckle up.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.boom-online.co.uk/ Amy Fowler

    I think that because social media is still, in the scheme of things, a relatively new phenomenon, most people don’t consider the consequences of a Tweet or a Facebook status. People treat social networks so casually that they think nothing of airing speculations or sharing rather personal details about themselves. I’m sure this attitude is set to change in the near future though.

    I also never realised the laws were so strict in the UK (despite living there). However I don’t think it’s fair to penalise someone for retweeting something false. The initial tweeter – fair enough – but retweeting is usually nothing more than someone seeing a tweet, thinking ‘that’s interesting’, and hitting ‘retweet’. Is it really fair to fine someone because the information they retweeted turned out to be false?

    Either way, this will make me think more carefully about what I retweet in future….

  • Amy Birch

    AGREED. Thanks for this post Jason. I was waiting for someone to post something like this. I’m in the UK, so when the tweets were pouring in, it was hard to keep track of what was true or false. Citizen journalism is a tricky subject to tackle. Trained journalists know the consequences of tweeting false information, but your everyday twitter user does not, therefore, is it right that they should be sued for tweeting incorrect or defaming information? Like I said, it’s tricky – and they would probably use ‘free speech’ as their back up.
    People need use common sense on social media site where something like this is concerned. The ‘trail by media’ approach does not work, and can ruin people’s lives. Think before you tweet people!

  • Dara Khajavi

    Social Media’s response to the bombing was fascinating. I think that it was the first time that Social Media was ever fully involved. Google had its people finder. People on 4chan and Reddit were trying to find the bomber. This all relates to what you are saying. In the past, wrongly accused suspects sued media outlets. Now, who would a wrongly accused person sue? Media is no longer responsible for the news.

  • http://twitter.com/CatieRagusa Catie Ragusa

    Thanks for this post, Jason. As a recent Journalism graduate, it really drives me crazy to see so many people popping off false tweets and posts as news. The conspiracy theories and downright wrong information sent millions of people into a frenzy of freak-outs.

    With that being said, I do believe that social media can be a great outlet for news once everyone has the facts straight. Otherwise, there are too many rumors being thrown around before the facts come out. I saw the same thing happen with Sandy Hook and other recent disasters. Statements like “BREAKING NEWS: CNN reported that Fox said that such and such happened, which they heard from ABC.” start getting thrown around uncontrollably. What?

    As for being punished for retweeting false information–I feel that that’s completely stupid, for lack of a better word. People DO make mistakes and should be more cautious before retweeting, but the sad truth is that we’re not. You can’t be held accountable for something that another person already said–after all, in the RT it’s still in the original reporter’s words.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1399955377 Terry Boyd

    The problem with mainstream journalists isn’t Social Media, it’s the pressure on reporters from newspaper editors and TV producers to compete with Twitter. Those media executives know the public doesn’t remember who got it right, only who broke the story ….

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  • http://chelpixie.com/ Chel Wolverton

    I’m haunted by Thursday evening of last week (well, the entire week at this point) when I spent 3 hours reporting posts on reddit that contained Sunil’s name. Some of the comments were sick, misinformed and it was scary to see the internet “at work”.

    I thought it was intriguing until finger pointing happened and then turned into mass hysteria. I was sickened by the bloodthirsty calls to kill those that the Internet dug up as suspects, who turned out not to be involved in the bombings at all.

    After witnessing that behavior I dearly hope that both reddit, 4chan, Buzzfeed, The New York Post, et all will be sued. They dearly need to learn the lesson that making 17 year old boys fear for their lives by reporting misinformation and naming them publicly isn’t morally or legally right.

  • annnolan

    Thanks for this Jason. I wrote about this issue also in terms of digital thinker, Jaron Lanier’s cautions on “mob” mentality online a few years back and the need for restraint in reporting news events as they are happening. I dont think anyone wants to live in a society of Trial by Tweets.

    http://www.annnolan.com.au

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Stern/1407215229 Kevin Stern

    The problem is, the Court of All Peoples convenes first, and they’ve already decided you’re guilty. In fact, you’re guilty even if proven innocent. Even celebrities misname “bad guys” and merrily post their home address or phone number online. What’s the solution? Suspend Freedom of Press? Demand media shut the fuck up until a real trial has concluded, the report after the fact? Clearly, asking for a little journalistic integrity is out of the question. The only answer is to sue these sites out of existence. You won’t be so quick to screw up if you’ll lose everything.

  • Doreen Dickens

    unfortunately mob mentality isn’t dying anytime soon. Thanks for posting though. http://www.customwritingservice.org/

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