The Boston Bombings Created a Social Media Mob

Just think, on most other weeks, an Elvis impersonator sending ricin-laced letters to lawmakers would be the headline news. Of course, hardly anyone is paying attention to that. Even a massive fertilizer explosion is barely mentioned two days after it killed 15 people and injured more than 160.

We're all watching Boston.

But what good does any of it do us?

Information overload
Two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon on Monday, and the city went into virtual lockdown. What happened over the course of the following days can only be described as the first terrorist act of the social media era. Suspects were identified on Thursday, by which time, the gears of Internet obsession (turned most ferociously by Reddit and 4chan), had already ground away at a slew of available pictures and videos for over 24 hours. By Thursday night, we had a robbery, a murder, and a manhunt. By Friday morning, one of the suspects was dead. Throughout, anyone with a presence on social media has been bombarded nonstop by real-time updates on the manhunt (which is still ongoing in search of other suspects as I write this), and an absolute swarm of speculation, reversals, outrage, half-truths, and finger-pointing.

We're all watching Boston.

But what good does any of it do us?

Real-time trauma
Facebook
(NASDAQ: FB  ) can be an amazing tool. I use it to stay connected with distant friends, to make plans for the weekend, to entertain and be entertained by people I might have otherwise lost from my life. Twitter can also be an amazing tool. You can use it to see what celebrities are thinking, or to try to get closer to those who write the news that matters to you. Most of all, Twitter is amazing at keeping you up to date on the interesting things that happen in the world out there beyond your computer. Events of this nature are proof positive that the major social media platforms have real value for their users, who increasingly turn to friends and virtual connections over traditional media platforms when big news breaks.

But social media can also have a profoundly deleterious effect on our personal and societal well-being when it gives us a false sense of connection to events over which we have no real control -- particularly when we find ourselves in the middle of the action without fully understanding what's going on. This is particularly true when we're more willing to trust the froth of social media than the (supposedly) reasoned reporting of the news media.

Social media has made millions feel that they have to say something, whether or not they really should. A compelling speculation, or an incorrect update, can catch our attention and be sent to a network of eager connections before we take the time to find out the truth. The need for immediacy infects traditional media more with each new crisis, as news anchors feel the need to keep up with a form of media that can broadcast any bystander to the entire world long before a professional journalist can get his or her story straight. Social media speculates, the news media legitimizes and, occasionally, the wrong person gets caught in the crosshairs.

We're all watching Boston.

But is that actually hurting some of us?

Some will probably be speculating that the suspects were motivated by their religion, or their nationality, or their personal cause -- whatever that may be -- to do what they did. The back-and-forth between the real-time social stream, and the old-media talking heads, underscores both the rising importance of social media as a compelling news platform, and the need to approach its claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Time Warner's CNN has -- both in Boston and in earlier tragedies -- broadcast speculation that its anchors see on Twitter, only to have Twitter shoot the speculation down seconds later. Other networks often do the same and, in some cases, will even amplify that speculation to pander to an outraged audience. Having followed the attack and its aftermath for a week, it's almost impossible not to speculate, because speculation fills the wide spaces between rare moments of truth. And when we devote so much time to speculation, how long will it take before we turn our speculations on each other? How long before we twist the speculation into the truth?

Today, we're all watching Boston.

Tomorrow, who will we watch?

Illusions of truth
It's tempting to say that the paramilitary lockdown that now grips the Boston area is driven in part by social-media froth, by authorities' need to stay one step ahead of Internet vigilantes who would either endanger the innocent or undermine the pursuit of the guilty, whether innocently, or with malicious intent. But it could also be seen as the cause of that froth, the well-armed hand that whips the watchers into a frenzy. Does an entire city need to be locked down to catch one person on the run?

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. -- George Orwell, 1984

Social media can be a very useful tool of communication. It can also be a useful tool of manipulation, misdirection, and control. We already know that ads can be targeted, and posts can be promoted based on how social media algorithms perceive us. Given the growing power social media has over our news consumption -- and its affect on the news itself -- are we really ready to accept this new broadcast paradigm without first questioning where the information comes from?

We're all watching Boston.

But our new medium may also be watching us.

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