Social media as breaking-news feed: Worse information, faster

<b>commentary</b> The unfolding of breaking news on social media can create a dangerous well of misinformation, witch-hunting, and egomaniacal info-spewing. Time for some ground rules for the Internet.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
4 min read
Binders Full of Women: One of the many non-news sites that accidentally libeled a high-schooler recently.
One of the many non-news sites that accidentally libeled a high-schooler in the rush to be a real-time news source. CNET

Early this morning, the public Facebook page called Binders Full of Women apologized for posting Boston police scanner chatter that erroneously identified a missing Brown undergrad as a suspect in this week's Boston Marathon bombings. The Binders Full of Women feed author subsequently deleted the post. Earlier, in the midst of multiple other posts about the unfolding Watertown, Mass., manhunt and shootout that started last night, the author defensively noted that any misinformation must be excused because, "I am NOT a journalist, and I am only relaying information from the [Boston Police Department] scanner and news sources."

But in point of fact, why, exactly, is a public page dedicated to women's rights issues in America essentially live-blogging a suspect manhunt, warts and all, on Facebook? Not that the Facebook page (whose 319,000 followers all got the same misinformation) was the only offender.

Michael Skolnik, of hip-hop culture and news blog Global Grind also apologized on Twitter for publishing the name overheard from scanner chatter, which was also tweeted by many, many others who either heard it on police scanners or retweeted what they saw online.

And Reddit moderators were apologizing for kicking off the whole domino chain after their commenter community initially targeted the student, Sunil Tripathi, as a possible suspect, and then repeated the news that his name had been used on police scanners.

Meanwhile, a high-school track runner is afraid to leave his house because he was wrongly identified as a possible suspect in crowdsourced photos and by the New York Post. And this poor guy was briefly held, questioned, and released in Watertown last night, but not before he was identified all over Twitter as a "suspect on the ground."

If speed is the currency of the modern information era, misinformation is the increasingly high cost. Some, like Matthew Ingram at Paid Content, argue that journalism is made better by multiple sources. And certainly, high profile mistakes (and occasionally laughable coverage) by the likes of CNN, and downright irresponsible journalism by the New York Post, might seem to suggest that's true.

It's not. We have more information, but it's a morass of truths, half-truths, and what we used to call libel. It's fast, but it's bad. And bad information is a cancer that just keeps growing. I'd argue the opposite of Ingram: that the hyperintense pressure of real-time reporting from Twitter, crowdsourcing from Reddit, and constant mockery from an online community that is empirically skewed toward negativity and criticism is actually hurting journalism. It's making all the news worse.

When CNN makes a mistake, it matters more, but CNN can't afford to be slower than Twitter. Talk about a lose-lose.
When CNN makes a mistake, it matters more, but CNN can't afford to be slower than Twitter. Talk about a lose-lose. CNET

Why is CNN reporting wrong information as soon as possible? Because if CNN reports that info 20 minutes after it showed up on Twitter, the network will be skewered as pathetically behind the times. But should CNN or Fox report erroneous information in the rush to keep up, the networks will be skewered with identical glee and ruthlessness, while Reddit's slanderous and speculative threads will be congratulated as collaborative crowdsourcing that, while it may lead to devastating mistakes early on, eventually lands on the truth.

What kind of ridiculous double standard is that?

We're still in the early stages of figuring out how to experience news on social media. I do agree that firsthand reports from witnesses, reporters on Twitter, and those to whom an event is actually happening are invaluable new sources of information. I agree that circulating official "have you seen this person" images on Reddit or anywhere else online is orders of magnitude more effective than the old days of nailing said posters to trees and outhouses. Social media and the Internet have a huge role to play in the future of news -- they may very well be the future of news. But right now, they're making news worse before they make it better.

So as we go forward, I'd like to suggest some social-media Ground Rules for Breaking News.

Rule #1: If you have a lot of followers and you want to help, direct people to reliable sources of information, like a police department feed, a news feed, or someone who's on the ground, as in the case of Danny Sullivan last night with Seth Mnookin and other local resources.

Rule #2: Do not, under any circumstances, broadcast the names or photos of alleged suspects before verification. Panicked police officers in the midst of a firefight, chase, manhunt, and explosions who are desperately shouting things over scanners do not count as verification.

Scanner apps rise to the Top 10 on iTunes. Put the scanner apps down, I beg you.
Scanner apps rise to the Top 10 on iTunes. Put the scanner apps down, I beg you. Marketingland.com

Rule #3: If you want to be involved, broadcast helpful information, not Any Information At All. If you're the Binders Full of Women Facebook page, tell your 319,000 followers how to donate blood in the aftermath of a bombing. Tell them to stay inside while the bombing suspect manhunt continues. Broadcast the number of the FBI tip line in case they see any suspicious information. You can be useful without trying to be a news wire.

Rule #4: Sometimes you are powerless and you do not have information. That's OK. It's not your job. The Internet doesn't make us a great, seething Collective Omniscient just because there are more eyeballs on what's happening. Information, unlike sending a tweet full of wrong information, still takes time. Just put down the computer and go to bed.