#Watertown: Social media and the Flow of Misinformation

Distribution methods have changed but quality of information hasn”t followed.

GCA I didn’t think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looked like Sunil Tripathi, the  student who trended wildly last week as social networks reported that the Boston police scanner had named him – incorrectly, it later turned out – as one of the marathon bombers.

I also didn’t think Tripathi fitted the typical profile of a terrorist bomber. I’m not entirely sure why, but watching this video of his family and friends only further confirmed my feelings.

Not that I’m an expert on these matters, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But neither were the people so carelessly bandying his name about online.

Frenzied cries on Reddit and Twitter.

Everybody seemed so convinced though, and as I stared more and more at the pictures of Sunil Tripathi and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I started to see some similarities around the eyes and the upper cheekbones; but, still, the nose… the nose didn’t seem to fit…

Could I be wrong though? So many people were saying it.

In hindsight, this questioning of my own perception, reminds me of the results of the Asch Conformity Experiments.

Within about an hour, however, the Sunil Tripathi theory was completely discredited after the FBI released the names of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The smug bubble of the self-appointed online sleuths who had first ‘identified’ Tripathi was abruptly burst.

The frenzied cries on Reddit and Twitter that “traditional media is dead, long live new media” seemed absurd now.

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Much is made nowadays of the flow of information on the web, particularly on social media. And indeed it would be foolish to deny that the historic methods of distributing news, for instance, have been significantly disrupted by the advent of sites like Facebook and Twitter. The financial journalist Gillian Tett recently wrote a really interesting article in the FT about a study linking the performance of financial traders and Twitter. The study she cites found that certain traders successfully use Twitter as a source of information if their sources are of a diverse enough range not to be too homogenous or biased in their opinions and also informed enough to be insightful and not give vague, unhelpful information.

And the results from this analysis are intriguing. The MIT research (which has not yet been fully published) suggests that investors do not perform most effectively when they are isolated from social groups. The image of a brilliant, maverick trader sitting alone, shunning conversation to make winning individual trades is wrong. But neither do traders outperform when they are embedded too deeply in any one market group (or chat room) be that the gold bug community, Japan watchers, Bitcoin enthusiasts, or anything else.


Instead, the best returns occur when investors are plugged into diverse social groups that enable them to collide with information from multiple networks. In the social media world, as in real life, it pays to hover on the edge of cliques – but not get slavishly sucked into just one.

It was a ridiculous inference.

Could the false accusation of Sunil Tripathi be explained by these reasons? In a comment on Facebook, Wry Republic’s CD Anderson described it quite amusingly:

“Mobs are bad at the best of times, but mobs with keyboards and too much Red Bull in their systems are diabolical.”

Apparently the rumour first began circulating on Reddit and then at some point began to spread to Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook page that Sunil Tripathi’s family had set up to help find him was soon swamped by a huge influx of unpleasant and accusatory comments. According to various news sources the page received 1 million views in the first week that it was set up. His family knew all along that their son was not responsible for the attacks. For those who had never met him, only the most tenuous of links could be drawn between the pictures of him and those released of the marathon bombing suspects. For those who had, it was a ridiculous inference.

Allegedly his name had first been heard on the Boston EMS scanner as a possible suspect who police were investigating. It is unclear whether or not this is indeed the case, but true or not it is a highly irresponsible use of what could only be construed as circumstantial evidence.

Even if the police did mention him, it was just that, a mention, not a conviction.

So keen were these online mobs to name the culprit, before the mainstream media and even law enforcement could, that they disregarded all the traditional ways in which justice is dispensed: presumed innocence, evidence linking him to the crime scene; presentation of this evidence, as well as a defense prepared by the accused before a court of law.

Poor Sunil Tripathi was hung, drawn and quartered by a bloodthirsty mob baying for his guilt.

And he’s still missing.

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This wasn’t the only piece of inaccurate information circulating online.

As cable news offered no new information, people flocked online for fresh insights, most of it entirely unreliable.

Whilst the search for the now identified Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was well underway, Twitter was painting a highly contradictory scene. I read two separate Tweets from two different Tweeters within about two seconds of each other giving wildly varying accounts of Tsarnaev’s whereabouts. One said that he’d ‘run into the woods’, after the police had tried to talk to him; another that someone had seen Tsarnaev break into a car outside his house and drive away.

It hardly needs to be said that unless Tsarnaev possessed superhuman powers this information is obviously false.

Later in the evening, however, those who had been consistently listening to the Boston EMS scanner which was still being broadcast online, despite numerous protestations from the police department, were able to report in real time the capture of Tsarnaev before any major news organization was able to. Which is incredible.

But more the exception than the rule.

“Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle”, a highly respected study led by academics at Cornell University found that only 3.5% of news stories ‘percolate’ in the blogosphere before reaching maturity in the mainstream media, the overwhelming majority of stories are first broken by the major news providers and are only then carried over into the blogs.

Unable to make an editorial decision.

Whilst there is much hype online about the death of the mainstream media, the facts do not bear it out.

Twitter is merely a new distribution mechanism which the older, bigger more established media houses are able to make as much use of as smaller websites and individual bloggers who seem to piggyback off their mass transmissions and indeed aid their progression.

The fact is their superior newsgathering resources means that they dominate the disseminating of new information. There is also a great deal more pressure on them to preserve their credibility as well, so it is important for them to make sure that the information they provide is accurate. The rule of thumb over the course of yesterday’s events was not to believe anything fully until the BBC or CNN had first verified it.

One interesting thing to consider, however, is that when access to information on the ground is widely available, as in the case of the Boston EMS scanner that was broadcast online, then individuals have as much chance of credibly breaking news as the big players do.

But, also, only if they’re able to make a judicious editorial decision as to whether the information is useful or not and not a false alarm – as in the unfortunate case of Sunil Tripathi.

Not to say that unless there is a person behind a desk with the title ‘Editor-in Chief’ that such information should be disregarded. Even The Daily Telegraph posted speculative rumours that Tsarnaev had ‘escaped by train’ and let us not forget the wild ‘cricket bat’ tale first published by City Press in the Oscar Pistorius case.

Editing is merely a process of separating good information from bad, utile information from superfluous. And some do this better than others, usually when there is money or some other significant cost at stake (like loss of a job).

Which also accords with the findings of the study into financial traders, presumably these traders are dealing with quality information which has already been editorially assembled, and by using their own editorial expertise, they are also able to assess correctly and use to make good decisions.

Yesterday I wrote a short piece wondering how much of the information I was currently receiving would turn out to be accurate in the future.

Well the future is now and, as it currently stands, much of it turned out to be bogus, not least the online witch hunt against Sunil Tripathi; but also the wild speculation by various players in the media. Only the BBC and CNN can be said to be have been relatively consistent in their reportage.

Indeed in our Twittering age there is a great deal of change in the way that information is distributed, but there is no real disruption in the quality of the information provided. Until that changes as well, I’ll take investigations on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook et al with a bucket load of salt.

Candice Holdsworth

Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena. It is mythologised that she sprang fully formed from its pages. Candice has an MSc in Political Philosophy from the London School of Economics, and thus can be most commonly found discussing ideas and culture. Her writing can also be found on Thought Leader and On Netflix Now. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceCarrie and Instagram @candicecholdsworth

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