The Writings

Internet Sleuths


This past week has been a flood of varying emotions. We’ve experienced tragedy, heartache, fear, anger, and jubilation when the suspect was captured. Plus the earthquakes in Asia and the factory explosion in Texas... what a wild week! But there was another interesting development that arose right in front of our eyes. Something we’ve never seen before which is truly unique to our modern day and age.

When 9/11 happened, we were a mess. SWAT and rescue teams were unable to communicate with one another, our technology was unable to produce and analyze the situation to better educate us on what happened or identify the people who committed these acts, and our country was in a massive state of panic. More than eleven years later, we’re using infrared cameras on helicopters, robots, and better communication equipment to correspond and hunt down the suspected criminals in a matter of DAYS. Yet the most surprising and simplest tool that has popped up during this time is the cell phone and the communities of the internet.

Noe and I were fresh off the plane from Coachella and on the 5A bus from Dulles heading back to DC when Noe spotted the news on her phone, through Twitter. Literally within minutes of the Boston bombings, we knew about it, before TV networks and probably more than half the bus was even aware anything had happened. Soon after that, we were seeing pictures taken by civilian “photojournalists”, capturing images of the chaos with their cell phones. From our bus in the Washington metropolitan area, we were able to see everything that was happening in a city over four hundred miles away.

Soon after that, however, people were hunting down whomever committed these senseless and violent acts upon innocent civilians. Communities like Reddit were scanning thousands of user-uploaded images, trying to identify any possible suspect and piecing together whatever available data they had at their disposal. Shortly, predictions and witch hunts began, and users started posting these suspects’ Facebook pages and Twitter handles all over the site, demanding they are brought to justice.

It didn’t take awfully long before the Boston Police Department announced two suspects - one in a black baseball hat and sunglasses and another in a white baseball cap - who they observed entered the scene with backpacks over their shoulders, then, in later images, walking calmly away from scenes of the explosions without those previously mentioned backpacks. Surprisingly, (or, if I stop being sarcastic, not surprisingly) these suspects weren’t the two internet users initially thought they were. People like Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student, or 17-year old Salah Eddin Barhoum had their reputations slandered by Reddit, 4chan, and the New York Post.

The beauty of this day and age is that we have the ability to utilize tools at our disposal, such as our mobile phones, to document occurrences that may be breaking stories  before photojournalists and news organizations are able to get to the scene. We can combine user images with those of surveillance cameras to piece together the puzzle and identify criminals at speeds inconceivable years ago. Anyone with an iPhone or Android and a connection to the internet could break a story, and anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account can be a whistleblower and a hero.

But at what cost? Many people are quick to retweet or post speculative stories just for the sake of being first - a tactic numerous news organizations like CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC have done regularly. People are able to doctor photos and add fuel to the fear and frenzied fire of speculation with misinformation as a means to further their own ideologies or agendas. We have the fortunes to be the first to be informed, but what if it’s the wrong information in the first place?

There is someone I know who was posting just about ANYTHING he saw on Twitter - speculative or not, from news organizations to simple civilian twitter users doing a Sherlock Holmes impression - and continuously cycled rhetoric into the Twittersphere. He announced the suspect had been captured and the boat alight in flames hours before the suspect was actually apprehended and misleading followers to an event that never actually happened - the boat was never caught on fire. When called out on his handling of the news, he simply stated, “I’m tweeting it like I see it!”

This raises an interesting point. Just because any news item is out there - whether it’s a tweet or a photo - does that mean we should spread the information out there before we can be certain it’s a trustworthy and reliable source?

After 9/11, our society has become increasingly jumpy at the slightest hint of a situation that could put others at risk. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have your guard up for the possibility of something that could occur and harm you or your loved ones, does that mean you should live in constant paranoia and fear, circulating the slightest hypothetical stories you catch wind of just out of the sake of protecting yourself, no matter how wrong you could be? Is it right to take a photograph from a citizen photojournalist and commit to it as fact before a source like the Boston Police Department confirms it to be truth?

We live in a remarkable period where technology continues to develop at a dizzying pace, allowing us to achieve results previously unthinkable. While these devices are getting more and more brilliant, however, we need to remember that if we’re going to be the next Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. Perhaps we should think a little harder before we share that photo or information and, in the meantime, stick to cat pics and selfies before we only contribute to the whirlwind of speculation.

Until next time,

- Patrick