Crowdsourced Information: Why Verification of Information is Essential

Reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing

On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded at the annual Boston Marathon, killing 3 spectators and injuring 264 people in total. Pictures and videos of this incident found their way to the internet soon after it had happened. The FBI led the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, but there was another group that set up an investigation of their own: a section of Reddit (a user-generated news site) called ‘FindBostonBombers’. This section had been set up by a user of the site in order to gather information and perhaps even to discover the identities of the bombers. Previously, a Reddit user had created a comprehensive timeline of the Aurora shooting and discovered an up till then unnoticed social media account of the shooter (Chen, 2012). Many news outlets reported on this discovery. Perhaps based on this ‘success’, the users thought they could lend a helping hand. However, it turned out differently this time.

At this point, the FBI (as well as the ATF and the Boston law enforcement) were soliciting videos, pictures and other material that might help, making this the most crowdsourced terror investigation in American history (Abad-Santos, 2013). A Reddit user had set up a subreddit in order to mine through the large amount of released pictures. Though the user set up some rules, such as ‘do not post personal information’, it didn’t stop some of the users from creating their own theories and then acting upon these theories by posting personal information of their suspects. On April 18, grainy pictures of two suspects aired on live television (Shontell, 2013). Based on those pictures, and through miscommunication, rumours, speculation and sheer stupidity, members began to accuse Sunil Tripathi after a photo comparison and a supposed mention of his name on a police scanner. Many vile messages were send to his personal Facebook page, and his family was harassed as well. The FB group dedicated to finding him had to be closed. Why was there a FB group, set up by friends and family, dedicated to finding him? It was not because they thought he was a suspect that needed to be brought in. It was because Sunil Tripathi was missing at the time; it later turned out that he had committed suicide.

Using this case as an example, I want to illustrate how quickly misinformation can clutter discourse. And while the users might have had the best intentions, they were in over their heads. Crowdsourced information can be a great source for news, as the rapid growth of social media has made it easier to share pictures, videos and stories. And indeed, the news institutions more and more look to the public to help source new information (Silverman & Tsubaki, 2014). But without verifying thoroughly, misinformation will be spread.

Verification of rumours

Fear and uncertainty breed rumours. Especially in the aftermath of such an attack, with the suspects still on the loose. In times like those, verification is essential as misinformation might only increase the felt anxiety. Social media can both help, as journalists can verify info from sources, but also the other way around: for instance, users can verify a tweet with info or an article send out by a journalist. But social media can also delude the public through spread misinformation and lazy journalism. How can misinformation be countered?

Silverman & Tsubaki (2014), in the Verification Handbook, made a list of fundamentals for verifying information during a disaster (p. 11):

  • Put a plan and procedures in place before disasters and breaking news occurs.
  • Develop human sources.
  • Contact people, talk to them.
  • Be skeptical when something looks, sounds or seems too good to be true.
  • Consult credible sources.
  • Familiarize yourself with search and research methods, and new tools.
  • Communicate and work together with other professionals – verification is a team sport.
  • When trying to evaluate information – be it an image, tweet, video or other type of content – you must verify the source and the content.

This gives us a broad overview of the fundamentals one should keep in mind when verifying info during a disaster. The last bullet point is a recent maxim added in light of the increasing significance of social media. And since the example discussed above deals almost exclusively with social media, it would be madness not to include the four elements a journalist needs to check and confirm when it comes to pieces of information or content found via social media (Wardle, 2014):

1. Provenance: Is this the original piece of content?
2. Source: Who uploaded the content?
3. Date: When was the content created?
4. Location: Where was the content created?

Preventing a social media debacle

In the case of the ‘FindBostonBombers’-subreddit on Reddit, there were a couple of reasons for their investigation failing. Apart from not properly verifying their intel and not properly verifying the claims made by the user(s) accusing Sunil Tripathi (such as checking whether Sunil was mentioned on the police scanner at all, and whether this was in relation to the bombing), the community succumbed to confirmation bias. It wanted to be right, and wanted to be the first to solve the case. Reddit uses upvotes in order to get the most popular news to the frontpage, and when there’s a strong sense of community and being one front, it can lead to the formation of a hivemind of sorts. Many were upvoting because it fitted the narrative of this community outsmarting the established media. But next to that, there were also tweets like: “If Sunil Tripathi did indeed commit this #BostonBombing, Reddit has scored a significant, game-changing victory.” and “Journalism students take note: tonight, the best reporting was crowdsourced, digital and done by bystanders. #Watertown” (Madrigal, 2013). This seems to indicate that the community wanted to one-up journalists and the FBI, that they could do it better. ‘Journalism’ seems to be equated to ‘The Establishment’ in this instance, and getting a scoop is equal to a rebellious act. This seems to indicate a distrust of the media, something two ‘Redditors’ named as one of the reason to investigate the bombing on their own (Pickert and Sorenson, 2013).

Communities like this cannot be stopped, and I will not argue that they should be stopped. However, when you start an investigation like this, you also take on a responsibility. When you put someone’s personal information online, tagging someone as a potential suspect, you take a giant risk that could have a massive influence on the life of the person you’re accusing. It might have real-life consequences through arrests and harassment. To solve this, I would suggest that Reddit pays more attention to moderating these kinds of initiatives. And I believe they are capable of this. A good example of well-moderated subreddit is ‘AskScience’, where you either need to provide sources with your answers to the questions of users, or need to prove that you are an expert on a certain topic. Everything else that isn’t useful will be deleted. I think this might be the way to go for such a community: unfounded accusations and unverified info should either be debunked, removed or flagged as false. It might also be a good idea to have guidelines (such as ‘do not post personal information, go to the authorities’) and to post the verification fundamentals I shared above. Which hopefully will be used, as using those fundementals could have prevented all this. Or at the very least, it could have cut out a lot of noise distorting the facts.

References

Abad-Santos, A. (2013). Reddit and 4Chan Are on the Boston Bomber Case. Retrieved from: http://www.thewire.com/national/2013/04/reddit-and-4chan-are-boston-bomber-case/64312/

Che, B.X. (2012). How Reddit Scooped the Press on the Aurora Shootings. Retrieved from: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/reddit-aurora-shooter-aff/

Madrigal, A.C. (2013). #BostonBombing: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/-bostonbombing-the-anatomy-of-a-misinformation-disaster/275155/

Pickert, K., & Sorenson, A. (2013). Inside Reddit’s Hunt for the Boston Bombers. Retrieved from: http://nation.time.com/2013/04/23/inside-reddits-hunt-for-the-boston-bombers/

Shontell, A. (2013). What It’s Like When Reddit Wrongly Accuses Your Loved One Of Murder. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/reddit-falsely-accuses-sunil-tripathi-of-boston-bombing-2013-7

Silverman, C., & Tsubaki, R. (2014). When Emergency News Breaks. In Verification Handbook (pp. 7-12).

Wardle, C. (2014). Verifying User-Generated Concent. In Verification Handbook (pp. 25-34).

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8 gedachtes over “Crowdsourced Information: Why Verification of Information is Essential

  1. • The subject ‘crowdsourcing’ is interesting. Definitely in combination with finding the Boston Bombers
    • Reference of ‘confirmation bias’ probably?
    • I do not have any remarks I guess. The point that you want to make is clear! Your introduction as well, but probably you could start off with ‘how it should be done’ as in the end.

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  2. Feedback:

    – Title could be more cathy, but on the other hand it is very clear the way it is now.
    – I think it is not a good idea to start with a heading in your first paragraph
    – Catchy opening, but it is very long for an introduction. Maybe it is better to make this your first paragraph and write a small introduction above this piece of text?
    – You discuss the four elements a journalists needs to check when using info from social media, but it looks like this is just an addition which is not really elaborated any further. You just give the information, that is it.
    – Maybe you have to link the two paragraphs ‘verification of rumours’ and ‘preventing a social media debacle’ a bit better. Right now, the transition is not that smooth.
    – Good paragraphs! Clear order of information and a steady conclusion at the end.

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    • Thanks for the feedback, lots of stuff I will definitely keep in mind for my next blog post! As for the paragraph transitions, the way I saw it was that I would first describe the situation that went wrong, then give the general advice that is useful for everyone in such a situation, and then give some specific remarks towards Reddit. I guess I should have made it more clear that the general fundamentals was aimed as advice to the Reddit community as well. As you said, it might be a bit disconnected from the rest now, though I hope it is still clear that it is applicable in this situation.

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  3. I really like the example that you mentioned about crowdsourced information and the necessity to verify information in crisis situations and crowded User-Generated platforms such as Reddit. Did that guy who they accused to be the perpetrator kill himself because he got harassed by these ignorants? I think this story is a good example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The public really wants to believe that it can help and you are right about the distrust in traditional media, otherwise the public or in this case the Reddit content creators would not have taken matters to their own hand. Still, if they wanted to contribute in their own way, the least they could do is to educate themselves on investigations and the verification tools that you mentioned. I really liked the fact that you connected this case example with the verification tools and fundamentals that we are taught. It’s not just about being critical or sceptical about news content and their sources, but also to act upon it. In your piece, you have given a very good example of how mass stupidity can damage the life of one single person. The question then arises whether or not we can trust crowdsourced information if it ends up with false information that can affect someone so deeply. You never know what or whom will pop up in the crowd when you solely rely on crowdsourced information such as provided in the Reddit platform. I think it best to combine both crowdsourced media and traditional media to attain validity of news and leave the accusations to the investigators of crime, because they can’t afford to make mistakes (due to their positions). And if official investigators of crime do make a mistake in claiming the perpetrator, then legal matters can be taken for this injustice and a retribution can more easily be assigned. In the case of crowdsourced media, it’s a collective mistake, therefore, who is to be retributed for what has happened to Sunil? Very good piece. You have made your point and convinced me of its essence.

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    • “Did that guy who they accused to be the perpetrator kill himself because he got harassed by these ignorants?”

      From what I’ve read, he had been depressed before and had been missing before he was accused. So personally I don’t believe it is related per se, though some media outlets have speculated that it might be. I don’t think so though; I think that is speculation merely added for the sake of the narrative, as some American media have the tendency to make stories even larger, to the point of mythologization. It has never been confirmed though, and his family has stated that he had been depressed beforehand.

      But the investigation might have had an influence in a different way. Because of the accusations, the FBI had to release their info about the suspects earlier than planned in order to deal with the false accusations. This might have made the suspects feel like the hunt had started, leading to a chase and violence that killed a police officer. Perhaps if they had been unaware of the fact that the authorities were on to them, this could have been avoided. But that is also speculation. Nevertheless, an official investigation was influenced which had its consequences. Which goes to show the risks of non-professional investigation.

      Thanks for your post and feedback, it was very interesting to read through 🙂

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  4. I like your writing, is very good. I think it could be even better if you would use a more journalistic style. The Boston Marathon case you chose is very interesting, it shows how complex verifying crowdsourced content can be. I think it would interesting to see how journalists deal with crowdsourced materials, maybe some of them do not do better than Reddit users.

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    • Might be true, but at least it will help that they are familiar with how to verify info and finding the proper sources. Sure, there will also be lazy journalism, but when a journalist has the contacts, credible sources, familiarity with tools, search and research and a healthy dose of skepticism, I think they’d do a better job than any internet investigator. Social media just has made it easier for people to call out a journalist when presenting false/improperly researched info; a good thing.

      If I may enquire, what constitutes a more journalistic style for you? Might be something to take into account for my next piece, so any advice might be helpful 🙂

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