Crowd-sourced reporting via social media can be invaluable, particularly in situations like the Arab Spring, the Haiti earthquake, or Hurricane Sandy, in which critical, actionable information about what’s going on is widely distributed among the populace. But as we also saw in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora shooting, we tend to expect too much of the Internet when it comes to quickly pinpointing the identity and motives of the perpetrators of crimes. In those cases, information is usually concentrated in the hands of a few, and most of them are already busy talking to authorities. Nice as it would be to have immediate answers, jumping to the wrong conclusion only compounds the damage. The truth may be out there, but it’s not always just a click away.
There’s this friend of mine. Years ago, her teenage son was accused by some friends of being the mastermind of a plot to carry out a Columbine-style attack on his school. A politically ambitious prosecutor got wind of this and took the opportunity to make a criminal case out of it. As it turned out, there was no plot, there were no weapons; there was nothing but some cryptic remarks on MySpace and some adolescent rumor-mongering. Nonetheless, his name and picture ended up on the front page of the newspaper under the shrieking headlines, despite his being underage. A year or so later, the court case had come to nothing, but the subdued retractions, of course, didn’t rate the front page or even the slightly-larger font.
Even the relatively-glacial pace of “old media” didn’t necessarily protect against that sort of potentially-disastrous misinformation being disseminated.
Most of the shiny-object fascination with social networking is a harmless, if intensely annoying, kind of stupidity. But these increasingly common gestures in the direction of flash mob justice make me want to take those whose myopic self-absorption is far out of proportion to their actual presence and grind their stupid fucking faces into their smartphones.