THE BLOG
04/23/2013 06:40 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2013

Social Media Mayhem: Online Vigilantism and the Ethics of Tweeting a Scoop

It wasn't the news outlets with the scoops Friday in Boston; it was Boston area police scanners being streamed over the Internet, and the Twitter feeds that were following them. This is just one example of how the events of last week were made more chaotic by social media. Even the FBI fell prey to the social media monster.

Friday afternoon I popped onto HuffPost Live to get the latest on the pursuit of the bombing suspect. It was about an hour before they got suspect #2. He was still in the boat. The host, Alyona Minkovski, was interviewing experts on a subject related to the bombing, but the topic in the live comments was the action that was unfolding with the capture.

Just as I had entered the site, someone posted a Ustream link of a Boston area police scanner. Someone had set up a video stream with a camera on their scanner and we could hear the audio. The person who posted the link to the scanner sent me a note saying that only a few minutes after they posted the link there were over 2 million people viewing the scanner video stream. As we listened, we were posting what we were hearing and commenting about it.

Even though we were posting what we were hearing, Minkovski was not referring to our comments, probably a responsible decision on her part. However, as soon as we heard news on the scanner, the Boston Globe, or someone else would tweet it. We heard a comment regarding a possible fire on the boat, and sure enough, within minutes, NBC tweeted it. We still have no information on whether there really was a fire on the boat.

Minkovski then announced that authorities asked people not to post information they heard on the police scanners online. Although she added, under her breath, that there is some controversy over this. I felt compelled to comply with the authorities' wishes. I asked people participating in the comments how they felt about it. I got no answer, but they continued tweeting updates from the scanner. We heard the police discuss pulling back the cover on the boat, throwing in the flash bombs, and requesting a hostage negotiator. The whole time news outlets were tweeting this information.

Finally, we heard the words we were waiting for, "suspect in custody." Immediately, NBC tweeted it and Brian Williams went on TV to announce it to the world. We didn't know for sure whom the suspect mentioned on the scanner really was. However, NBC rolled the dice, and assumed it was Dzhohkar Tsarnaev. Unlike with the boat fire, the dice fell in their favor this time, and now they are receiving accolades for being the first to announce the capture.

It was surreal to hear the police on the scanner, see several people post what we heard in the comments, and then see NBC tweet it, while HuffPost Live had still not yet reported it. I am sure the Huffington Post monitors the comments, and saw the postings of the link to the scanner.

Should Huffington Post Live have gone to the video stream and had the scoop like the other news outlets? Or perhaps it is more responsible for a news outlet to hold off posting what is heard on a police scanner before it is confirmed? By praising NBC are we reinforcing behavior other news outlets are being criticized for?

I think these questions are important because as social networking becomes more of an innate part of our lives, we will continue to share outlets of information, good or bad. Our posts traverse the planet at near light speed, and the next time a similar event happens, we will be right back here asking the same questions.

The FBI has now told us that social networking also played a large part in their decision-making last week. Users in a Reddit.com forum were essentially crowd sourcing vigilante crime fighting. They were coordinating amongst themselves to share pictures from the marathon of people they thought looked suspicious so that others could scour more pictures in an attempt to catch the bad guys in the act.

Law enforcement told The Washington Post that their decision to release pictures of the two suspects was partly influenced by concerns that efforts such as this would cause the wrong people to be targeted. An example of their fears being realized was the front-page picture on The New York Post of two innocent bystanders who they wrongly alleged were suspects.

It is wild to think that online vigilantism and news outlets with ravenous appetites for a scoop helped force the hand of the FBI. Especially given that the FBI now believes their release of the pictures of the suspects most likely caused the spree of violence that included shootouts, a car jacking, and culminated in the raid of the boat that some of us got to hear live from police scanners streamed over the Internet.

I am a social media junky, and I was floored to be able to listen to the scanner and comment with other HuffPost Live viewers, but as exciting as it was, it is also a bit scary. It is the wild west of the web, and things are moving so fast none of us can keep up.

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