Social media prove unreliable for breaking news

Brett Stover

Feature Photo by Mikaela Acton
Feature Photo by Mikaela Acton
Seven out of 10 RBHS students use Twitter, according to a survey of 360 students taken by the yearbook, Flashback. While the number is dissimilar to a national statistic from Education Week that shows only eight percent of teens use Twitter, the number still shows how much impact this outlet has on RBHS.
Many use this social media merely to disseminate and gather often meaningless bits of information, but others look to Twitter to take in breaking news. Even though this method of aggregating knowledge is extremely efficient, the accuracy has recently been called into question.
Just one month ago, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This dreadful tragedy sparked a week of madness in the city. The faulty news coverage and widely-believed internet rumors did not help alleviate the stresses of the week-long manhunt that culminated in the death of one suspect and the capture of his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Looking back on these events, one lesson the public should have learned from the week after the bombings was that in a time of crisis, most news sources sacrifice accuracy for expediency. Many news websites use other news sources to provide their breaking news, which means that if only one site used a faulty source then the bad information would be quickly sent around the internet.
Another important message from the bombing coverage was the massive use of the Boston Police Department’s radio scanners. In the midst of the manhunt, some officers were using Twitter and various other social media for tips, leading to incorrect names of suspects being spoken over the scanner. This reinforced people using sites such as Reddit, an outlet which initially called out the wrong perpetrator.
As Politico copy editor Kelsey Hayes tweeted, the whole situation was a “giant writhing mass of journalistic derp.”
Imagine for a moment that social media sites like Twitter were in existence after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The speculation and conspiracy theories that could potentially emerge would likely have been thousands of times greater than those after Boston. On social media, people tend to interact primarily with those who share their own opinions, and dissent rarely occurs, leading to an ‘echo chamber’ of their beliefs.
Other than the various ‘false flag’ conspiracy nuts, there were many unintentional mistakes: The New York Post initially reported that 12 had been killed by the blasts. The New York Post, as well as many on Reddit, incorrectly identified the bombing suspect. CNN and The Associated Press both reported Wednesday that a suspect was in custody. Reddit readers pointed to a missing Brown student as the suspect, which began to gain traction on the Thursday as the student’s name came on the police scanners.
Perhaps the most important journalistic point from the Boston Marathon attack and ensuing manhunt is that 21st century media are broken. These days, everyone with a Twitter account thinks they’re a journalist. While they are to ‘report’ news, true journalists should always take the extra time to verify their information.
The urge to be the first is always difficult to overcome, but it is better than issuing apologies later when the real news is published.
When it comes to breaking news, stay off Twitter, other social media and live news updates. Take a break, a drink and a nap. Then check again, maybe even the next day, and hopefully by then the real story is revealed.