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.