Tragedies have a way of magnifying everything. The very best and the very worst of us has surfaced during times of extreme need and extreme emotion and the Boston bombing was no exception.
Compared to traditional means of broadcasting, social media is still very new yet, in this case, it took center stage as the Boston police used Twitter to get information out fast to the Press and the public. In a medium that is as empowering and transparent as social media the inclination to use the web “to do something” is as natural as it is understandable. Understandable is, also, the web, often acts as a mirror reflecting back at us not just what we expect to see but the biases and prejudices that out of necessity govern every initial approach.
Google search, reflecting search query trends, has shown itself to be inherently biased when it comes to issues of race. The crowdsourced hunt for evidence of the Boston bombers, at first, and then the bombers themselves was a predictable response to a problem posed by the bombing.
And the problem, beyond the medical emergencies that were created, the personal tragedies that occurred and the inherent sense of insecurity it generated in the city of Boston, was one of Big Data. With so many devices capable of taking photographs and video plus street cameras, traffic light cameras and CCTV footage the authorities were confident that the bombers would have been caught on some frame, somewhere. Finding them though relied on manpower that did not exist.
This is where social media stepped in with Reddit (primarily) which launched the subreddit #findbostonbombers (with a trending hashtag on Twitter and Google search), and a number of smaller cells on other social media platforms.
Big Data is a force to be reckoned with. It deals with the very real vectors of Volume, Velocity, Variety and Veracity. And for it to work in our favour each of these has to be dealt separately in a structured, controlled way. With the massive volume of data flooding in, speed of processing became crucial. Data, in cases like this, is only good within a specific time frame. Identifying the suspects months later, when they could well be out of the country, would have been a hollow victory. So the pressure was very real for everyone involved.
With Volume and Velocity compounding each other, Variety came by way of both leads and those who were processing them. In traditional hunts for evidence, those who look for them are usually trained. They work within certain parameters designed to safeguard them and those around them. In this case the crowd that took part in the hunt for the Boston suspects was neither trained nor equally well motivated. Some were well meaning Samaritans. Others were people from across the globe with time on their hands. In retrospect this was a recipe for what was to follow, but at the time the speed at which everything was happening did not allow time for reflection.
This leads us to the last Big Data vector: Veracity. Traditionally this applies to the source quality of the data you are examining. In this case however it also applies to the input brought in by those who became part of this special blend of crowdsourced justice. In retrospect we know that Reddit, overnight, became Witch Hunt Central, singling out anyone who was not Caucasian or did not have a Caucasian sounding name and attaching all sorts of suspicions about them. Hindsight however is always 20-20.
Reddit issued an apology. Many of its redditors had already expressed their remorse in taking part in what became an online lynch mob. I will go as far as to say that all are innocent. It is wrong to place people in an environment where they feel they are charged with doing something, fail to guide them, fail to train them and then blame them when they get things wrong.
If I take this very enlightened view, you will wonder then, who is to blame? The authorities, perhaps, if they had taken a slightly more pro-active role in this. But they too were caught flat footed. Faced with the need for data, quickly, they sought to crowdsource it oblivious to the fact that they were also throwing the door wide open to crowdsourcing the hunt for the suspects. Used to being the only ones with authoritative information they were perhaps unprepared for the decentralized nature of the web that would give equal credence to every lead that came in, regardless.
Newspapers and TV News, the veritable guardians of veracity in journalism, in the past, could perhaps be blamed better. They are trained to verify sources before they publish them. But in a social media environment provenance is hard to establish and the speed at which things were happening (Velocity again) was not helping.
So they all ended up doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. In the process innocents were demonized, reputations were destroyed, trust came under the spotlight and Reddit ended up with many a red-faced redditor.
If anything is to be learnt from all this mess it’s the lessons it gives us:
1. Guidelines are necessary. Crowdsourcing, as an exercise that drives information out of “the wisdom of the crowd” works because lacking an overriding authority it irons out unilateral biases, but in cases such as this, a free-for-all goes the other way. Every bias surfaces is accepted unquestioningly, amplified and magnified and served up as truth.
2. A buffer is needed. Problems in the Boston bombing arose from the fact that rumours and suspicions went from social media to established news media without anyone acting as a buffer anywhere. Here the decentralized nature of the web, was turned against us.
3. Each crisis has its unique challenges. The authorities used social media to gather evidence and communicate but then stepped away from any direct involvement in its processing in that sphere. They failed to appreciate that when a channel is used to officially communicate something, it retains authority for anything that is subsequently communicated through it. So rumours became facts. Suppositions became possibilities that called for action.
The Boston bombing showed that social media, essentially the actions of people sitting hundreds and even thousands of miles away from the scene, looking at screens and clicking on pointing devices, has the ability to transform all those clicks into something very real that has local impact.
Like most of our technological advances this can be put to good or bad use. The defining factor that decides which it is lies in our collective ability to work to establish acceptable guidelines of conduct that safeguard our integrity. Ethics is a difficult subject to establish in a uniform way across an area that is decentralized, asynchronous and full of participants who take part in relational exchanges that are asymmetrical. Yet, we all know right from wrong. We apply it in our everyday lives without much hesitation.
We now need to work out how to do so in our digital ones.
What You Missed
Boston bombing: How internet detectives got it very wrong
Reddit apologises for online Boston 'witch hunt'
Crowdsourcing ‘Justice’ in the Boston Bombing Case
Did Reddit’s Involvement in the Boston Bombings do more harm than good?