I Was Wrong About the Boston Bomber's Name, and What It Tells Us About Social Media


On Thursday night, I wrote a story arguing that social media is superior to traditional media for breaking news because Twitter had the story at Watertown before TV networks did, and Reddit had identified a suspect before authorities announced the name. I felt fairly confident that Sunil Tripathi was a suspect because his name went out on the Boston Police scanner.

I was wrong. On Friday, the FBI announced the names of the suspects, and they did not include the name of the missing person I had identified. I apologize to the family of Sunil Tripathi for any pain I helped cause them.

While in some respects social media is superior to traditional media, it lacks the editorial filter that is crucial when dealing with sensitive subjects such as suspect identification. This makes it incredibly compelling to follow live, far more gripping than most manufactured entertainment. It's great that this promotes engagement with the news, but the downside is that we get caught up in the second-by-second flow of news. Sometimes we need to take a step back to regain perspective.

Just a few years ago, having the story the next day instead of that night would never have been considered slow. Really, it's not. It's just not fast. But as is now obvious, fast has its own issues.

It's also worth noting, however, that social media was not quite as bad as it seems in the frenzy to condemn amateur investigators. Even in the initial identification of Tripathi on Reddit, many cautioned that it was mere speculation.

The nagging question for me is who announced the name over the police scanner and why. I know the scanner is just unofficial chatter, but up to the minute information was crucial for Watertown residents who needed to know who was terrorizing their neighborhood. It is understandable (if misguided) to appreciate social media for spreading information that seemed like it could save lives when the police themselves were spreading the same.

Traditional media also fell prey to the speculation based off the scanner reports, such as Michelle Malkin and UK newspaper The Week. In my first article, I also pointed to CNN's false reporting of an immediate arrest and the New York Post's mis-identification of two men as suspects on their cover.

What this shows, then, is that the traditional media needs to maintain that editorial authority through careful distance from the real time news. In the words of Gus Silber (on Twitter), "As never before in history, as proved in Boston, the observed world is becoming the recorded world."

In a future with livestreams from Google glass and even more people tweeting everything, social media will become even more invaluable for getting raw information. But the false identification of Sunil Tripathi shows we need traditional media more than ever to filter and fact check that information. Hopefully the two can form a productive relationship.