(this first appeared on Medium.com)
One of the things I can’t stand to hear is the term “going viral” or some other variant that includes “went” and “gone.” It’s like some form of communication materializes into a virus and jumps from one poor sap to another, infecting them with a nonstop reel of cat videos.
Most of the time, it’s a harmless vid of babies doing baby things or some overly exuberant stuntman wannabe lighting himself on fire. Sometimes though, it becomes a bad side effect of crowd sleuthing and an increasingly slipshod media.
When Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary and slaughtered innocent children, social media users and eventually news outlets pointed to his brother’s Facebook page, saying it was the killer’s page.
Ryan had to defend himself and, ironically, used social media to explain to people that it wasn’t him.
It’s no secret, traditional media, and subsequently social media, are more bent on getting something first rather than waiting and getting it right. It’s better to correct it later than get it after everyone else.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, the New York Post tried to label an innocent Saudi man as a suspect. Social media and sites like Reddit immediately put the word out. The word was wrong though.
Police later sent out Tweets saying that wasn’t true.
You have to wonder, who beget who? Did social media create the intense pressure to get something first or did that pressure (and it’s ensuing errors) drive social media to find the truth? It’s a growing dilemma.
Under the wrong circumstances, crowd sleuthing may eventually create a dangerous witch hunt.
Social media can definitely help though. Just ask the FBI. After they released photos of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, they got floods of tips from the social media universe which ultimately helped them ID the brothers. This is all nice and good.
The problem with social media and its viral brethren is the same problem we have with actual viruses. When information is wrong, it gets spread as truth and it’s hard to correct.
Hopefully over time, we’ll learn the optimal way to use social media when police are looking for a suspect. I think we’re already getting there in some form. Whenever that Saudi national was ruled out as a suspect in the Boston bombing, Reddit users were quick to echo the news.
Maybe we’re learning that we need vaccines against viral speculation.