Mere seconds after Boston bombings, the social media sphere was buzzing. Soon the buzz turned to a loud reverberation as posts, blogs, podcasts, tweets, pins, retweets, reblogs, repins and shares spread the news like wildfire.
Social media once again proved to be a powerful tool for news events, to get the word around the world in just a matter of seconds. Events taking place in any corner of the globe are being used more and more to leverage tweets, posts, blogs and various other forms of social media communication.
However, there is a black and white side to it, isn’t there? Whether it is the Arab Spring, an act of terror like the Boston bombings, natural calamities like the recent earthquake in China or seemingly ‘trivial’ matters like Justin Bieber’s comment on Anne Frank, social media forums are being used (and sometimes misused) to spread information and misinformation much to the joy and horror (as the case may be) of citizens, governments and people in power.
Sometimes national and racial sentiments are hurt, people get profiled and trivial comments are blown out of proportion. Because of the lightening speed at which bloggers and tweeters often operate, there is a lot of room for false news and plain lies, rumours, slander, hacking, information without any hard evidence, incomplete news, racial profiling, and much more.
This could lead to panic, distrust, hatred and lawsuits. It could also lead to witchhunts even before the government, police or authorities make official statements about any event.
Therefore, it important for bloggers to use restraint in their rush to publish. The old adage, “haste makes waste” is very applicable to the blogosphere. If you don’t wait until the facts are sorted out, your story would be incorrect and you lose credibility.
All the hard work that has gone into building your blog over the years can be undone by just one bad tweet.
What Happened in Boston?
As the Los Angeles Times said after the Boston bombings: “Over the last few days, thousands of people have taken to the Internet to play Sherlock Holmes.” Their clues? Grainy surveillance camera videos, cell phone photos, photos and live coverage of the run and the bombing, and of course, live tweets from police scanners. Armed with these clues, tips and speculations, they twittered about what happened and who might have been behind it.
Calling it “one of the most alarming social media events of our time,” a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, noted: “We’re really good at uploading images and unleashing amateurs, but we’re no good with the social norms that would protect the innocent.”
Accusations, rumours, speculation and false news filled all social media forums. Based on information in social media, Reddit and 4chan said that the culprits were Muslim fundamentalists or perhaps right wing extremists. On-the-spot police and investigators seem to have taken second place to social media!
Once the FBI released images of the actual suspects, things quickly went out of hand. Searching the Net, some “amateur sleuths focused their suspicions on Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing since last month. Using an animation tool, they used an image of Tripathi to highlight similarities between his face and the FBI photos of one of the Boston bombing suspects.”
Some swore to take revenge on him, a few others called all Indians terrorists. He had been missing since March 16, and his body was found several days later in the waters off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the brothers from Chechnya were held responsible and investigation continues.
Reddit, the rallying point for the online witch hunt by amateur sleuths, apologized. And the saga of amateur sleuths discovering the people responsible for the bombing at the Boston Marathon came to an end.
Czech or Chechnya?
While it’s quick thinking to use news to leverage social media, it’s best to get all your facts straight and ensure that you are not making a fool of yourself online. The Czech ambassador to the USA recently said that many Americans on social media confused his country with Chechnya! Many people tweeted that the Boston bombers were from the Czech Republic.
This must have caused embarrassment to Czechs and hurt national sentiments. It also made a lot of Czechs laugh at the ignorance of the social media enthusiasts. No wonder it is vital for commentators to get their basic facts right and do some homework and research before typing away furiously.
The Stock Market
Recently, the twitter account of an international news agency said there had been an explosion in the White House and President Obama was injured. Associated Press clarified within seconds that its twitter account had been hacked into. But the false news spread far and wide and even hit the stock market.
The tweet traveled much faster than the retraction! Twitter suspended the account. The White House responded immediately that President Obama was safe. But the dip in the stock market holds testimony to the strength of a tweet.
Bieber and Anne Frank
If Anne Frank had not died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, pop singer Justin Bieber hopes she would have been his devoted fan. That’s what Bieber, 19, wrote in the guestbook at the Anne Frank House which he visited in April 2013:
Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.
A tourist site posted the message on its Facebook page.
Bieber’s comments drew a huge response from people using different social media. Freelance writer Diana Reese tweeted, “I cringe at the insensitivity and the sheer ego of your remark.
No wonder the ‘Generation Me’ stereotype persists.” She added, “And yet, I think that Anne, of all people, would have forgiven Bieber for being young and stupid, when you think about one of the most famous quotes from her diary:
…because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
Many bloggers were quick to ‘forgive’ Bieber. Any young man his age would have been out partying in wild Amsterdam, they said, not visiting Anne Frank’s home.
It’s Not All Bad!
Hey, it is not downhill all the way. In the recent past, with the huge spurt in growth of social media, news that earlier went unreported or underreported, suddenly reached the rest of world. Remember, it was a tweet that broke the story of the attack on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan!
The earthquake in Sichuan province on April 20, 2013 was first covered by the country’s social media. A similar natural disaster in 2008 hardly got any media coverage; it was tightly controlled by state-run media agencies. According to Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Beijing’s renowned Tsinghua University, “In social media on the Internet, the number of comments about the effectiveness of the rescue efforts that are positive outweighs those that are not.”
Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter in China with over 500 million users, has become the country’s main social media platform. It co-exists with the state controlled media and in some cases, holds the government and authorities to account. How to rescue people hit by the quake, was but one of the many articles shared through social media platforms in China.
Clearly, social media is a double-edged sword. The latest source of news can also become the playground of fraudsters and rumor-mongers. Millions of tweets discussed fake fundraising accounts, fake donations from celebrities and the possible fake reporting from a journalist in her wedding dress.
Social media practitioner Justin Flitter says on Ignite Social Media, “Social Networking is growing like texting did. Texting is now a normal form of communication around the world.”
Mind you, only 8% of all U.S. Internet users are active on Twitter every day; only 20% of smart phone owners are active on Twitter; and only 13% use the service on a typical day. So the potential is much larger. Not only will the number of smartphone users increase, the ratio of twitter users will also grow. Since 18-24 year olds are driving both the smartphone and twitter usage, do we see the makings of a networking revolution?
What comes next? Censorship of social media? 140-word job applications on twitter? We don’t know. But before you send out that tweet, just check once again. Let’s not forget, the impact could be much greater than you expect.