The (destructive) power of social media

The Boston Marathon bombings, along with all their horror, became the latest event to showcase the incredible power of social media. Sometimes that was clearly for the better. A tweet from a physician at the finish line, for example, was the first notification of the bombings received by Mass.General Hospital, where officials knew they would suddenly be receiving badly injured victims. But for all of the help social media provided in a crisis like this, we also saw its very dangerous downsides.

No one may be better able to attest to that than the family of Sunil Tripathi. He was the 22-year-old student at Brown University who disappeared on March 16. Tripathi had been suffering from depression, and had taken a leave of absence from Brown. His family began a desperate search for him, which ended tragically with the discovery of his body on April 23 in the Providence River. But that was not before they had to endure the additional anguish — and barrage of media calls — from seeing Sunil’s name and picture rocket across the Internet when he was identified briefly by some as a “Suspect No. 2” in the bombings.

Jay Caspian Kang, an editor at Grantland, walks us through just how that happened in a New York Times Magazine article, 6,300 words of warning about just how bad things can get in the digital wild west, where everyone is armed and there is no sheriff maintaining order.

A main culprit in the online fingering of Tripathi as the second bomber is the online community Reddit. Within minutes of the FBI’s release of grainy surveillance photographs of the suspected bombers on April 18, three days after the bombings, Kang writes that a Reddit user posted side-by-side photos of the second suspect — later identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — and Tripathi. What followed was a frightening case study in the power of the Internet to spread unfounded rumor as fact at breakneck speed. Within a couple of hours, angry messages began being posted to a Facebook page Tripathi’s family had set up to help find him and his family began getting media calls at their home in Pennsylvania. By 11 p.m., the Tripathis closed the Facebook page, a move that only stoked the already exploding Sunil-as-bomber storyline.

Writers at websites of varying levels of credibility, including Buzzfeed and a popular Hollywood gossip site, tweeted that suspicion was mounting about Tripathi’s involvement.  Pop-culture blogger Perez Hilton sent a tweet to 6 million followers. “From there, the small, contained world of speculation exploded on every social-media platform,” writes Kang. “Several journalists began tweeting out guarded thoughts about Sunil’s involvement.

Some of those who recklessly fingered Tripathi later sent out apologies, but most of the online post-mortems involved a remarkable passing of the buck, a defense based on the idea that things are always chaotic in the early stages of a huge breaking story and that most of the rumor mongering involved simply passing on speculation that someone else was reporting.

On Slate, Will Oremus wrestles further with all of this, keying in on an incredibly thoughtful reflection offered to Kang by Sunil’s sister, Sangeeta. “One thing we’ve been struck by is how porous the space is between social media, the media, and law enforcement,” she said. “We assumed that if random people on Twitter were sitting in their pajamas saying, ‘Here’s this kid missing in Providence that’s skinny, and here’s something horrible that happened because of a kid who’s skinny,’ that speculation would be contained within a certain space.”

Oremus says the retweeting of incorrect information about Tripathi — which included a New York Times reporter, some of Kang’s coworkers at Grantland, and a writer for Slate — was a major driver of the false rumor.

Lots of journalists add the “retweets aren’t endorsements” disclaimer to their Twitter profile, he writes. But does anyone pay that any heed in the heat of a moment like the frenzy following the bombings.

“Retweets may not be endorsements, per se,” writes Oremus. “But try telling that to Sunil Tripathi’s family.”

                                                                                                                                                                              –MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

MetroWest Daily News opinion page editor Rick Holmes says Deval Patrick may be the state’s best governor since Michael Dukakis, but he says Patrick’s always-shaky relationship with the Legislature has deteriorated even further and the governor now unequivocally wears the label “lame duck.”

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Burlington joins Boston, Quincy, and Somerville in having a hot restaurant scene meet the cold Brahmin math of the state’s liquor license cap.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno addresses crime concerns after a rash of shootings and a stabbing in his city.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The US prison population fell 1.7 percent last year, the third straight year it declined, Governing reports. Nine states — California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland — saw their prison populations decline by more than 1,000 inmates.

ELECTIONS

Suffolk DA Dan Conley denies that he’s planning on quitting the Boston mayoral race and angling to replace Martha Coakley instead.

Adrian Walker is less than taken with mayoral hopeful Charlotte Richie’s effort to dodge and weave her way around the issue of an elected versus appointed Boston School Committee.  When she said, finally, that the governance issue was a “distraction,” that was too much for Walker. “Even by the standards of political waffling, that’s a particularly spineless answer,” he writes. Ouch.

The Globe’s Wesley Lowery looks at the large number of minority mayoral candidates in Boston, which some hail as a sign of political vitality in the minority community but others say threatens to split the minority vote and hurt the chances of any minority candidate actually getting elected.

David Bernstein theorizes that Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone is talking openly about his gubernatorial ambitions because he doesn’t believe US Rep. Mike Capuano will actually jump into the gubernatorial race.

Anthony Weiner won’t quit New York’s mayoral chase, but the same can’t be said for his campaign manager. Now that he’s fled Weiner’s rapidly imploding campaign, Danny Kedem won’t have to answer any more absurd questions — like, why did Weiner spend $43,000 in campaign funds on a private investigator who was charged with tracking down Weiner’s nonexistent Twitter hacker? New York wonders when the Clintons will start leaning on Weiner to quit the race.

Congress’s approval rating keeps dropping, but House members keep getting reelected because congressional districts keep getting safer.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Paul Krugman blames sprawl for stifling economic mobility in boomtowns like Atlanta and decaying centers like Detroit alike.

EDUCATION

Next City looks at a Baltimore effort to combat poverty with a far-reaching redevelopment effort anchored around a public school.

RELIGION

In yet another signal that he may be cut from a different cloth, Pope Francis said in an interview that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation

HEALTH CARE

A national effort to streamline care and health coverage for low-income disabled adults is meeting with resistance from some Massachusetts insurers who complain that they would lose money by taking part.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Forty-four people are arrested protesting at the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Plant in Somerset, WBUR reports.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Boston police say they are “close” to solving the murder case of 24-year-old South Boston resident Amy Lord.

The former director of the Lawrence’s information technology department under former mayor Michael Sullivan pleads guilty to cheating the city out of more than $400,000 in federal funds, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

MEDIA

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The Boston Herald is launching an online radio station featuring news, sports, and talk, Media Nation reports.

A major radio broadcaster reportedly plans to drop Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Politico reports.