Tragedy and the Internet

“We Got Him,” were probably the three most used words on Twitter last night, as one of the biggest manhunts in American history came to an end.

Anyone can use the Internet. Well, not anyone, check your privilege Sean, but most Americans have internet access. And Americans can be good or bad people. Duh.

That’s why it’s not a surprise that the Internet was used for reasons both good and nefarious in the days surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.

Using the past weeks events, let’s talk about how the Internet plays out during times of tragedy.

The Nefarious:

The False Accusations:

Everyone likes a good mystery, and everyone likes to speculate, so members of Internet communities, mostly Reddit and 4Chan, took it upon themselves to ‘crowdsource’ the investigation.

Using images of the marathon crowds in the time surrounding the blasts, the internet sleuths pinpointed people who fit several characteristics: being shady, holding bags funny, running away ‘too quickly’ after the explosion, having a bag before the blast that they didn’t have after, and, unfortunately, being brown.

The two most high profile wrongly accused, who I’ll just describe instead of naming so as to not further link their names with the words ‘Boston bombing’ were a Moroccan track student, seen in photos with his coach at the finish line, looking angry (‘look, he’s hating America!’ the sleuths thought) presumably because he was late to the race and didn’t get to run. This man’s image was all over the front of the NY Post, and he received multiple threats. The second was a missing college student whose missing status and nationality made him a prime suspect to the internet. The missing student’s family, in addition to their grief over him, had to face accusations that he was a cold-blooded killer.

I understand the thinking behind wanting to solve the mystery: you want to help and you’re doing what you can, but in the back of your mind you also think it’s ‘fun.’ But this isn’t an episode of Lost, meant for you to find clues that’ll tell you a pre-determined ending: each accusation carried real-world consequences.

Not only did the accused suffer, but there is the chance this slowed down the investigation.

Possible Source of Explosives Info

When I was in middle school I was a typical tween boy: I thought explosions were cool. In my naivete I started looking on the internet for cool ways to make things go boom. I found more than I wanted, I found a website detailing how to make devices that could actually, you know, hurt people. I got freaked out cuz I was a typical tween boy and dismemberment wasn’t cool. I convinced my Dad to call the police, who were like “uhh we’re the local police, not the internet police. There’s nothing we can do about that.” I found a website that taught bomb-making when I was a child, this information is readily available online. Is that how the Tsarnaev’s taught themselves?

The Jokes and Pranks

I’m all for offensive humor most of the time, and I understand the argument that once you’re offended by one thing, you have to be offended by everything, but ‘too soon’ definitely applies when you’re making horrific jokes about 8-year-olds dying.

Twitter pranks also hindered the investigation, as masses of phony Twitters purporting to be the bomber sprung up. More than a handful of idiots didn’t understand the difference between a parody Twitter of Kim Kardashian and a parody Twitter of Public Enemy #1. False information is always bad in cases like this.

The Good

Internet Investigation Helps

Through all the noise and bologna of the internet investigations came one legitimate clue: a photo of Dzokhar Tsarnaev clearer than any the FBI provided, someone had taken a picture immediately after the blast that happened to capture the bomber. It is not yet known if this image aided the investigation, but according to the photographer the FBI called the image the “best they had.”

Online Donation

Like any catastrophe, many online donation and relief opportunities popped up online. This one, intended to raise money for Jeff Bauman, who appeared in an iconic image displaying his horrific injuries and ended up helping identify the bombers, has already raised over $300k.

Something that should be included up in ‘the bad’ is that there are probably a lot of phony donation sites out there, but I have no proof or examples.

Re-connecting Families

The very same social networks that were used to falsely accuse the innocent were also used to help reconnect families who were separated by the blast.

When Jeff Whalley couldn’t get in touch with his parents, and then saw an image of his bloody father on the news, he asked for help on the internet. “It took his Facebook friends — and their Facebook friends and so on — approximately 10 minutes to figure out why Whalley had been unable to find his mom and dad: They had been admitted under different names.”

The tragic Boston Marathon bombings marks the second time, the first being the earthquake in Haiti, that Google unleashed person finder, a web resource intended to help people locate other people made missing by tragedy.

The site works by allowing people to input information about people they know the whereabouts of, and allowing people to search for people they’re looking for. It was a major help in Japan, and surely will be a huge help in Boston: “Google Person Finder immediately began tracking over 5,000 lost individuals.”

I chose not to include the general misinformation that was being spread, because traditional news outlets were guilty of that too. I personally like getting my news from people who have their last name on Twitter as ‘Bieber’ and think that’s totally normal.

False information was spread just as quickly as true information, because like any tool the Internet is a mirror of its user. Like any medium, the Internet has it’s own share of control over the national conversation, and played a huge role in how things (and which things) are discussed, but in the end it’s people running the internet, just like it’s people running each bit of media. No one controls the media, everyone does.

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