Hypertext Essay – Reddit, Mob Mentality and The Networked Witchhunt: Veracity of Crowd Sourced Chaos

One of the downsides of moving away from canonical sources is in establishing the veracity of multiple sources. If we accept that information is knowledge, then it follows that truth and accuracy are essential to disseminating information rather than misinformation.

Traditional canonical sources like Journalists, at least in theory, are committed by their job description to principles of truth. But what happens when the provision of information becomes dispersed?

Sure, traditional media outlets do not always do the best job of providing information rather than misinformation, sometime by error, sometimes by corrupted objectives (such as valuing returns for shareholders or protecting company assets more than systems of quality control), but social media and networked information production have also failed somewhat spectacularly on a number of occassions.

One such example is the case of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the social media lead witch hunt to identify the perpetrators. The Atlantic chronicled the spread of misinformation through the network.

Within minutes of the explosion a “search engine” of thousands of amateur detectives were scouring all corners of the net attempting to identify men from a couple of grainy pictures that surfaced through various channels online mere seconds after the explosion.

The crowd-sourced investigation in a matter of no time turned up a high-resolution photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The picture, taken on a iPhone by a runner who had just completed the marathon, was of much better quality than anything released by authorities. Users of the website Reddit also quickly identified the distinctive black Bridgestone Golf hat worn by Tamerlan Tsarnaev as he wove through the crowds of happy marathon watchers.

There is a problem here and it comes back to the nature of information and role moralities. The role morality of a professional detective stems from their objective to uncover truth through investigation, this is not the approach of a Twitter storm. These internet detectives exhibited none of the reserve or caution of the professionals as demanded by their role morality. Tens of thousands of Twitter users crowded onto the Boston Police Department scanner as reports of a shoot-out were emerging from Watertown.

In a frenzy they tweeted everything that came over the crackly line, many times mishearing or failing to understand the context leading to the spread of misinformation. Then the story takes a turn from a flurry of retweets of police actions as Twitter users began to disseminate a rumour that a missing Indian-American student was one of the bombers. In an instant his name was plastered all over the internet, to the dismay of his parents who had not heard from him for over a month. The crazed spread of speculation that the student was involved only came under control after NBC News, a somewhat canonical source, directly contradicted the internet reports. The missing boy was later found dead, under unrelated circumstances. Reddit later apologized for the ‘dangerous speculation’ on the site.

Crowdsourcing in an investigation is not new, essentially releasing wanted posters of suspects relies on crowd sourcing information from the public, in those cases this information (the photos on the posters) are generated by professionals based on tested information, in this instance the crowdsourcing was simply speculation gone viral, a phenomenon some call ‘trial by social media’. This opinion was shared by Alexis C Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic who criticised Redditors’ actions as a “dangerous experiment”.

He says: “They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they’re doing. This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on. Imagine if people were standing around in Boston pointing fingers at people in photographs and (roughly) accusing them of terrorism. Even if Reddit had gotten the right guy, I would have still thought this was a dangerous experiment that should not be repeated. My hope is that we sober up about when and how crowdsourcing should be applied in the investigation of criminal cases. And perhaps, in the future, people will find ways to crowdsource without spotlighting false positives in a public discussion forum.”

Wikis, Citizen-journalism and Crowdsourcing can be effective, even very accurate and often helpful to a networked sourcing of information for digital users, the case of the Boston Marathon Bombing however is an example of why canonical sources of information like professional investigative journalism should retain some place of some distinction above a collaborative network of lay people producing information for public consumption.

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