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The Boston Bombings Created a Social Media Mob

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/04/19/the-boston-bombings-created-a-social-media-mob.aspx

Alex Planes
April 19, 2013

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