Is every crowdsourced “let’s catch the Bad Guys” effort inherently doomed to wind up as a witch hunt?
For a while last week, as we were all caught up in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I was cheered up a bit by the efforts of Reddit and 4chan to try to figure out what they could do to assist in a positive way. It seemed like they were doing all the right things, in a sincere effort to help law enforcement by crowdsourced the efforts to determine who had planted the bombs. Right up front, Reddit said that racism, trolling, idiocy of any kind would not be tolerated. They even had as a “sticky” post up at the top of the page, a notice reminded everyone of the sad story of Richard Jewell.
For a while, it seemed like they might actually be able to contribute something. That maybe having tens of thousands of sharp-eyed internet sleuths poring over the mountains of photos, videos, and eyewitness reports might lead to what the pros call “actionable intelligence.” Noted internet provocateur Jason Calacanis went so far as to say,
“Twitter is where all the smart and important people in the world spend their time, which means instant coverage of these horrific events unfolds there in real time. Sure, there are spammers and idiots on Twitter, but smart people favor Twitter over any other social network by far.”
Yet folks say, ‘Don’t speculate’?!
Ummmm, that’s exactly what we need to do!
Sometimes the rules change. Sometimes dogma needs to be flipped: ‘Shut up and let the cops do their job’ in the case of a terrorist attack is EXACTLY wrong.”
But very quickly, the idiot side of the internet took over, as 4channers started inserting “Where’s Waldo” into the photos and mocking the efforts to sift through the assets to find something of use, while outlets like CBS started wringing their hands over the fact that hordes of people on the web had self-deputized, and were now possibly (because who knows? It’s the unruly internet, after all!) out of control.
But the apology today from Reddit makes it clear that whatever clear intentions we started out with, no matter the warnings posted to try to ward off the kind of unthinking, hysterical shaming/assumptions of guilt … at the end of the road, we wound up at the same old familiar virtual lynching tree.
A few years ago, reddit enacted a policy to not allow personal information on the site. This was because “let’s find out who this is” events frequently result in witch hunts, often incorrectly identifying innocent suspects and disrupting or ruining their lives. We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong. The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different.
Of course, the traditional media is now pretty much hanging on the rim, whooping it up over the mistakes made on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And the digital media are firing back at the well-publicized errors at CNN, the NY Post, AP, and Fox News (whose coverage could have had poor Zooey Deschanel wondering if she was about to be sent to Gitmo with a sack on her head).
So what’s the real takeaway here? Well, the hard fact that I keep coming back to is that there were hundreds of thousands of people spending hours of their lives, obsessively poring over photos and videos. In some cases, this can lead to killers being found, mysteries being solves, and the innocent being set free.
In this case, it did not.
That does not mean that we should slam the door on crowdsourcing and leave everything to “the professionals.”
Look, we’ve got The People Formerly Known As The Audience no longer willing to sit passively and just let “news” wash over them. They want to be involved. They want to react. They want to DO SOMETHING. Send money, travel to New Orleans and man a bass boat with a rescue crew, build tents in Haiti, pepper their congressman with Tweets … whatever.
This generation grew up playing video games. You push the buttons on your digital device, and stuff on the screen in front of your face reacts. This paradigm is powerful. That’s why kids, including me, back in my [*wheeze*] youth loved playing them. They make you feel involved, empowered, in charge, filled with agency. Pick a phrase.
This genie is not going back into the bottle. No matter how much all the scolders tut-tut, the impulse of human beings to get off their asses and do something when they see something that moves them deeply, is going to continue. It will continue not just in the safe and societally acceptable channels of sending money/volunteering (and I think the mountains of teddy bears sent to the parents in Sandy Hook are misguided). This impulse is inevitably going to continue to play out in the digital realm, where we increasingly spend so much of our attentionshare.
The genie is not going back into the bottle. Nor should it.
Our jobs as journalists/media professionals are to figure out how better to make this impulse actually turn into something productive. I give Reddit a lot of credit for actually pitching in and helping.
Apropos of this: over the weekend, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome was at the Los Angeles Book Fair, plugging his new book “Citizenville,” all about Government 2.0. He answered questions about what he thought the intersection of technology and society can and should do and told a great story about the virtue of trying. Paraphrasing here:
“I own a hotel in Reno that was built back in the 60s. It’s old-school, so it has no air-conditioning. In the summer, to keep it cool, we open the doors to let the breeze flow through. The problem is, the mosquitoes also come in.
“Well, we had a night clerk. He was a little … strange. Like you’d pretty much expect from a guy who chooses to work the 2 a.m. shift. So he comes up with an idea to try to solve the mosquito problem. He goes out and gets a whole bunch of catfish and stocks them into the ponds surrounding the hotel, that were the breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“A day later, I get a call from one of the managers. He’s freaking out – ‘There’s blood everywhere! Blood and meat and torn flesh in the hallways! Something terrible happened here! I gotta go!”
“And then he hangs up. I’m freaking out. Wondering if the Manson Family somehow got loose and went Helter Skelter all over my hotel.
“And then I get the callback. Turns out the catfish really didn’t feast on the mosquitoes the way it was planned.
“But the raccoons? They feasted on the catfish. They went into such a frenzy, they were running through the halls of the hotel, ripping apart and eating the catfish they were easily catching out of these ponds. Looked like a massacre.
“The manager says, ‘So we fire him, right?’
“I said, ‘Hell no! Give that man a raise! At least he tried to solve the problem. He didn’t sit around, waiting for someone else to try to solve things. He saw a need and he jumped in and tried to fix things.’
“Granted. His solution didn’t work. But at least he tried something new and different.
“And that’s how the award for ‘Best Failure’ was born.”
That, in a nutshell, is how I feel about not only the attempts by ordinary citizens to help find the Boston Bombers … but the fact that Reddit is trying to work out the acceptable rules for how to run a crowdsourcing project that adds value to the response to a tragedy. If nobody tries anything until we have it all perfect … then nothing will ever get done.
If you want a more formal response to media coverage of the Boston bombings, you can check out the Poynter “4 Takeaways” list.