In the wake of the bombings that occurred during the Boston Marathon, and the manhunt that followed, several media outlets have reported that social media may have actually hindered, rather than helped, the FBI’s quest for swift justice. By all accounts, the search for the bombing brothers yielded one of the first nation-wide “up-close, play-by-play” accounts. In fact, CNBC reported that “[u]p to 8 of the top ten world-wide Twitter trends on Friday have been directly related to the Boston investigation.”
There is a downside to the rapid and widespread dissemination of information concerning the manhunt. Among some of the noted causes for concern; that easy access to police activity may aid suspects in their quest to escape; that misinformation can spread quite quickly, yielding unfair and undesirable results (take for example the case this past week where the NY Post identified the wrong person as one of the bombers) and that any news worthy event can prompt trollers to create fake postings and twitter feeds.
One of the biggest problems with disinformation is that it is hard to retract. Andy Borowitz keenly highlighted this phenomenon in his recent New Yorker parody, “CNN Quits Breaking News and Becomes “CNN Classic”
But the benefits of social media should not be discounted. Social media provided people with easy access to valuable information. Announcement that police caught one bombing suspect alive was released through Twitter, quickly relieving anxiety in Watertown and its environs. For those of us farther from the action, our social media accounts allowed us to follow the story from wherever we needed to be, a switch from the not to recent past where people were made to choose whether to remain near a television or phone or instead try to go about their daily lives, waiting anxiously to return to a news source.
The bombs went off just a few moments before my social media class. Eerily, 10 years ago, terrorists struck the first Tower just a few moments before my criminal law class. At the time, without us knowing the severity of the harm, I promptly cancelled class so students could find out any information they needed to gather about the horrific event. This time, I offered to cancel class again. My students, three of whom graduated from Boston University, assured me that class should go on and that any information they needed would reach them on their smart phone in a timely manner. Yes, they were distracted, but kudos to the students, who were nonetheless able to participate in class.