The Boston Marathon, Social Media, and the Spread of Misinformation

    by Matt Stempeck
    April 16, 2013

    I met my baby niece on Sunday morning. She was born late Saturday night. I went to some news sites to grab some screenshots of the things that happened the day she was born, and stopped myself. There were some really bad things happening in the world, Saturday, and every day. Instead, I wrote down that the Red Sox beat the Rays, 2-1.

    Yesterday was Marathon Monday, Patriot’s Day, one of those wonderful Massachusetts-only-and-why-do-they-get-an-extra-day-off days. My niece was home from the hospital, thank God. I had saved Monday, like most Bostonians, as a light at the end of the dark winter tunnel — the day I knew there’d be college cookouts and the largest crowd that assembles, anywhere, to watch distance runners go by. People work their asses off to qualify for Boston’s tough time limits. Others get into the race by raising large amounts of money for worthy charities. Runners of all speeds and shapes stream by wearing Team in Training and Dana Farber colors, in addition to an endless array of less formal causes, sick cousins and memoriams to those who have left us. The Red Sox are granted an exception by Major League Baseball to hold a home day game every year on this day, so that as the game finishes, another 40,000-strong may walk a couple of blocks and join the throngs already cheering on the waves of runners.


    We walked over to right near the finish line and cheered people in their last few blocks. We were impressed by how fresh everyone looked, how the crisp, sunny day had buoyed their spirits and helped them make running a marathon look easy. We tried to decide whether we should head to a bar at the finish line or out to Fenway. At the last minute we decided to hop on Hubway bikes, make use of the closed streets, and go over to watch the crowd pour out of Fenway. After failing to navigate the Lansdowne Street crowds with bikes, we walked over to Kenmore Square, the 1-mile-left mark. We stood next to a jovial group of undergrad girls, who shouted out personal cheers based on whatever the runners had written on their shirts. We told the runners how good they looked, and to finish strong. And then the girl next to me said something about a bombing. “Where’d you see this? On the Internet, or real news?” I asked. We all whip out our smartphones and find the Globe and others reporting multiple explosions. No. Not here, too.


    The next half hour was nothing short of eerie. The boisterous crowd slowly fell silent as, one by one, people found out. The runners continued on unaware. How do you stop an endless stream of marathoners and tell them that actually, on this day they have awaited, they are running straight toward a bomb scene? We couldn’t. Fortunately, just up the road, the runners were stopped by the proper authorities, and they began to pile up on at the entrance to the Commonwealth Ave. tunnel.


    A crowd crosses the street in order to exit the Boston Marathon. Photo by Michael Hayes

    After some hesitation, I forgave myself for the cardinal sin of crossing the active marathon route to get across the street, because there was no other way to get home. We walked back to the apartment in Back Bay, just blocks from Boylston. I began to feel the physical insecurity of seeing militarized state police pour out of vehicles, and knowing how little they could do to help now that the bombs had gone off.

    Unequal coverage and misinformation

    As ambulance sirens poured down every street and helicopters made concentric circles overhead, we needed information. And I knew going in that, in addition to the love and “Are you OK?“s from basically everyone I know and love and have ever known and loved, I was going to see some things I did not want to see online. I bring them up here because these are patterns. It matters little who the specific actors are this time: The same things will happen next time.

    1. This:

    Yes, there will be a lot of media coverage of this event, and yes, it will likely outweigh coverage of other deaths in other places, even if there are more deaths in those places. If you’re interested in why this happens, read Galtung’s theories about the priorities of the news. Completely unexpected, acutely violent events in globally rich places attract more news attention.

    I try to understand the frustration someone in a place like Iraq must feel, and am studying how the news media works to begin to try to remedy its ignorance of others’ pain. But you’re not going to get anywhere with this conversation if you begin it with “your deaths aren’t as important as you’re making them out to be.” Becoming upset that one outburst of sympathy fails to address all of the people deserving of sympathy never struck me as a particularly fruitful path to go down, and it’s certainly not tactful.

    2. And this guy.

    Taking advantage of Marathon sympathizers

    We’re probably going to see more sophisticated third-party hijackings of attention. There was a guy spreading misinformation during Hurricane Sandy, and yesterday, Boston had to deal with its own faker, who appropriated prayers, an image of the bomb scene, and the Boston Athletic Association’s identity to see how many people they could fool with promises of donation-for-retweet. He got about 2,000 retweets before enough people flagged him as spam.

    In a way, this is less “the problem with Twitter” and more an offbranch of the tabloids preying on the injured at a moment of peak spotlight.

    On Twitter, at least, we have some tools to silence these frauds. My colleague Chris Peterson studies “user-generated censorship,” or when groups of users repurpose the content-flagging tools most user-generated websites rely on, and by working together, convince the system to (at least temporarily) take down an account. It brings up interesting questions about free speech, and there are plenty of unfortunate instances of this behavior. But I was heartened to see Twitter’s automated system work fairly quickly to silence this actor before they could fool any more people or worse, direct hate aimed at them toward innocent users.

    The big picture

    In between the various symptoms of emotional exhaustion, I remain glued to incoming information. There are reports of bombs closer to my stomping grounds in Cambridge. There are SWAT teams assembling at the train station minutes from my parents’ house. I’m seeing all of the crisis information tools I’ve studied as I finish writing my thesis, like offers of shelter and Google Person Finder, deployed for my hometown. Et cetera.

    All I know is this, and it goes for everyone before and after today: You don’t ever want to see the name of your city trending on Twitter with “pray for” preceding it. You don’t want to ever be the recipient of the president’s promises to hold perpetrators accountable. You just want to be able to celebrate the end of winter and beginning of spring with the massive outpouring of human spirit Marathon Monday is supposed to be.

    More Reading

    Social Media Offers Vital Updates, Support After Boston Marathon Bombings (MediaShift)

    The View from MIT on the Boston Marathon Explosions (Idea Lab)

    Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change, mostly in Washington, D.C. He has advised numerous non-profits, startups, and socially responsible businesses on online strategy. Matt’s interested in location, games, online tools, and other fun things. He’s on Twitter @mstem.

    This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

    Tagged: bombings boston boston marathon civic media mit news patriot's day social media

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