You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In Boston, a Manhunt — Elsewhere, Peak Meta

BY Nick Judd | Friday, April 19 2013

The scene on Friday was one of hysteria, desperation, and fear.

Then there was what was actually happening in Boston, as authorities scoured the city and its surrounding area in search of the last living suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Law enforcement officials turned to the crowd Thursday for help identifying two suspects, now known to be Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev. Tamerlan, 26, is dead after an early-morning shootout with police. Dzhokar, 19, is still at large — and apparently so is any idea about what people should and shouldn't do online in the middle of an unfolding law enforcement operation.

"In the past eight hours, Twitter has lit up several times with reports that people are taking as true because they heard them on the scanner," offers Will Oremus, at Slate, this morning. "Among them was a report that police had named the two suspects in the Boston bombings and the MIT shootout. But those names were apparently the wrong ones, and two innocent people had their names disseminated widely as terror suspects."

ProPublica's Mike Tigas offered a lesson for citizen journalists: Don't live-tweet the police scanner, where information flashes past quickly and needs to be verified through official channels or by someone at the scene before it's worth passing along.

Alexis Madrigal scoured recordings of scanner chatter, and writes that what people say they heard — names of two men, one at least not a suspect, the other maybe not even a real person, mentioned by police — is not what the evidence he has found says was said. Even as "citizen journalists" gloated at the speed and accuracy of their reporting, he writes, they got it wrong. And some professionals went along for the ride.

What a confused public and a frantic cadre of journalists thought they heard may have simply not been what was really going on. It's been said repeatedly that newsroom reporters and editors view scanners as a tool for leads that need to be verified, either through official channels or by someone at the scene. But it seems that folks who don't know why that's a rule — or never learned it — tossed that convention aside.

"If you're listening to scanner traffic because you want to, keep in mind ... you're picking up only one channel," said Sgt. Jim Ryan, the public information officer for South Brunswick, NJ, and spokesperson for New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association. "You hear channel 1, channel 10 might be special operations."

We didn't reach out to law enforcement in the Boston area — it seemed like they were busy with other work on Friday. But Ryan cautioned that what scanner listeners are hearing, in general, is just a small part of law enforcement communications, given that each agency has "multiple platforms" to communicate. What an officer says he or she saw might not be relevant to what listeners are trying to find out about, for instance.

"If you take transmissions that weren't meant for public consumption for everyone but meant for an officer," he said. "I would not recommend retweeting that information."

In an ideal world, he said, all or most of police communication would be encrypted or kept outside of public view to limit the potential harm that might come from civilian listeners taking action based on what they heard — action that might be underinformed or ill-advised. But for a variety of reasons, from economics to technology, that's impractical.

The current hectic crossover between social media, mass media and police communications offers possibly the "most challenging dynamic" between police and the public in recent memory, he said. This past week — with multiple errors in reporting by outlets like the New York Post and CNN — are a case in point.

"Social media has changed the landscape," he said.

But it's not all bad — Twitter and Facebook are also tools for law enforcement to get out their own versions of events. And, he added, organizations like the Breaking News Network seem to have developed a set of standards governing what they decide to pass along while listening to the scanners on behalf of the news organizations that subscribe to their updates. And in the case of Boston, with people asked to stay in their homes as officers search for a suspect who is possibly still armed and dangerous, unsure of what's going on, "there is lots of curiosity and fear," he said. "I can understand the desire to get more information."

It's no secret that police monitor social media, too. Boston police "monitor social media sites like Facebook" and were recently teased for attempting to dupe people hosting underground punk shows into sharing dates and times with officers posing online as would-be rockers.

Federal law enforcement have a delicate relationship with social media as well. Thursday afternoon, while releasing photos of the bombing suspects but before they were identified, Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston Division of the FBI, asked for the public's help — but also asked the public to focus on what law enforcement was asking them to do.

"For clarity, these images should be the only ones—the only ones—that the public should view to assist us," he said. "Other photos should not be deemed credible and unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources."

This type of publicity surge helped the FBI capture gangster Whitey Bulger.

By early Friday morning, authorities knew who they were looking for and one of them had been shot and killed. What appears to be an operating-table photograph has surfaced of a dead man, covered in wounds and blood, said by the person who posted it to Reddit to be that suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It's likely the picture that has been giving Boston police officers a ghoulish sort of solace as it makes the rounds among them via email.

This, while one thread of the online conversation is focused on a tweet quoting Eminem from what may or may not be Tsarnaev's Twitter account.

Against this backdrop of life-and-death stakes is a conversation about who's doing Twitter right and which TV host is giving the best Internet, right this minute. The chaotic, incremental process of separating fact from fiction and relevance from trivia is part of any story. But the added layer — not just the inaccuracies and corrections, but the bookmaking on who's right, who's wrong, and who's merely advancing a political agenda, all with a fugitive still on the loose — makes the meta-conversations about the performance of TV anchors and social media editors into something that approaches reductio ad absurdum arguments against themselves.

"Is your social media editor destroying your news organization today?" asks Choire Sicha at the Awl, pillorying a particular cast of characters that speculated and bloviated online all day.

"Most of these people were just watching TV, just like you," Sicha wrote. "At least if they were in a newsroom, they had more than one TV on, so I guess that's a mild service?"

Of course it is the job of law enforcement to catch bad guys, the job of reporters and editors to work on the news, and the job of writers and bloggers to entertain, occasionally inform, and bring traffic to their websites. Only rarely do these overlap. But it's terribly sad to have a day like today be the reminder of how very often they collide in unhelpful ways.

Miranda Neubauer contributed reporting.