Even as we applaud the use of crowdsourcing to find terrorists such as those who bombed the Boston Marathon, we must caution over the sharing of uncorroborated accusations and “news” via social media.
CNN famously got a lot wrong both during and following the initial Boston Marathon bombing crisis, including sending out updates that erroneously stated that the police already had a suspect in custody. And if a major news outlet is fallible and can mislead the public, just imagine how badly untrained but eager-to-help social media users can screw things up.
And screw up they did, when spreading the picture of Moroccan teenager Salah Barhoun around as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.
And as if it wasn’t bad enough that his picture was being tagged all over the Internet as one of the suspects, the New York Post featured his picture on the front page, under the headline “Bag Men”!
Salah’s younger brother said that the misidentification made their mother sick and upset, explaining that “It made her think he had done something wrong. My brother is not the bomber.”
Said Barhoun, on his Facebook timeline just before going down to talk with authorities to clear his name, “Going to the court right now!! Shit is real. But u will see guys I’m did not do anything.”
Barhoun’s Facebook friends had plenty of advice for him, ranging from “Careful dude. The whole internet is watching you right about now,” to “Your picture have been blasted all over reddit and 4chan. You need to set the record straight, private your account and most importantly stay safe.”
Still another friend advised “I recommend making your profile private immediately. It has been discovered by social media and you may receive abusive inbox’s etc.”
Of course, by then it was already too late, and Barhoun’s picture was everywhere. Including the front of the New York Post.
This is eerily reminiscent of when Sandyhook shooter Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan Lanza was first misidentified as the Sandyhook shooter, and various outlets and social media started pointing to Ryan Lanza’s Facebook profile, saying that he was the shooter.
The point is, the power of the masses on social media can be leveraged to help in situations like finding the Boston Marathon suspects.
But, as always, with great power comes great responsibility (or, at least, it should) and in this case the responsibility is to be darned sure before you identify someone as a suspect in a crime.