Fort Hood and Social Media: Between Two Extremes

It's official: the crowdsourcing backlash has begun. Influential technology blog TechCrunch's Paul Carr vociferously condemned Fort Hood soldier Tearah Moore's paparazzi-like tweetings, describing her tasteless and often incorrect information as "entertainment and tragi-porn."

Carr went on to declare, "for all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded." Carr's harsh sentiments are shared by an emerging group of digi-skeptics who use Fort Hood as a prime example of social media evangelism's intellectual bankruptcy. The social media bubble urgently needs to be deflated, but Carr's critique goes too far.

Fort Hood may prove Carr's contention that "citizen journalists can't handle the truth," but Moore's tweetings pale in comparison to far more numerous (and more devastating) major media failures. Barely a month ago two enterprising Colorado parents managed to con the network news into believing that their boy was trapped on a giant balloon. This is to say nothing of manufactured media scares such as the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s or the Associated Press's widely denounced decision to publish pictures of a dying Marine on the Afghan battlefield.

Crowdsourced news, the overhyped New York indie rock band of today's media world, has finally been brought down to Earth. At the height of the bloody 2008 Mumbai attacks, Twitter and other crowdsourcing tools were hailed as the future of disaster reporting. Crowdsourced news was also given front-page status during the recent Iranian election crisis, with network news anchors sometimes literally reading off Tweets on air. Digital column inches were filling up with dripping odes to the Tweet that at times replicated the slavish tone of Cultural Revolution-era Maoist tributes.

Social media hype desperately needed a scaling-down, and Carr's righteous attack provided an effective humbling. Although Twitter was an effective source of information during the Mumbai attacks, the sheer amount of new users has tremendously warped the "signal to noise" ratio. A study on Twitter's role in the Iranian protests by Harvard's Web Ecology Project found that 59.3% of participating users contributed only 14.1% of the total number of Tweets, the top 10% most active users accounted for 65.5% of total Tweets, and 1 in 4 Iran-related Tweets were re-Tweets of another user's content. The Iranian election crisis was a massive digital echo chamber, not a shining example of citizen journalism in action.

Moreover, Fort Hood was not a complete disaster for social media. As the Columbia Journalism Review's Megan Garber notes, major news organizations effectively aggregated information through their own customized Twitter lists. While less "democratic," mainstream media-managed Twitter lists helped users sort useful information from the massive amount of noise that inaccurate Twitterers like Tearah Moore helped produce.

In a seminal paper on the sociology of networks, political scientist David Ronfeldt argues that the real "information elite" will be those who can marry the flexibility of decentralized forms with the "topsight" provided by centralization. The effective combination of centralized news organizations and decentralized citizen reporting seen in the Fort Hood incident demonstrates the essential truth of Ronfeldt's prediction. A better social media ecoystem is possible--if we can only ditch the digi-hype and embrace practical solutions.