In the seconds after the April 15 Boston bombings Twitter users broke the news to the world minutes before traditional news sources. This peer production would continue throughout the next few days and range from sharing of images and text to live-tweeting what they heard on the police scanner.
While some argue that these actions provide for the public good, others claim they were detrimental.
In his book “Wealth of Nations” Yochai Benkler defines peer production as “effective, large-scale cooperative efforts.” And that is exactly what Twitter becomes in situations like the Boston bombings, ie: effective, large-scale cooperative efforts to aggregate and share information on a specific subject, made easy by the use of hashtags.
Above, you see #bostonmarathon as the singular hashtag early in this event. However, as events unfolded, the national audience generalized the hashtag to simply #Boston. Later, after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shooting the hashtag moved to #MIT and then quickly to #Watertown, where the shootout with police occurred. By following the different hashtags used in the social media coverage of this event, it helps us to break down which sectors of the public are participating in this conversation.
Just in: MIT says gunshots were heard near Stata Center outside Kendall Square, advises students to stay clear
– @BostonGlobe, 11:02 p.m. April 18
Peer production played a very interesting role into the social media coverage following the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier in the manhunt for the two bombing suspects.
Twitter users took to their keyboards late into the night and early in the morning to tweet out aggregated news from various media outlets, effectively creating their own news by live-tweeting the scanner.
One of the handles tweeting police scanner information was @youranonnews, a self-proclaimed “news network that supports Anonymous.” With mass sharing of links to livestreams of the scanner some say that as many as 150,000 people listened to the Boston police scanner.
When law enforcement was made aware of the amount of people listening in and spreading information over Twitter they requested that users stop tweeting.
While this was retweeted more than 20,000 times, handles like @youranonnews kept up the live-tweeting of the scanner.
Tweets like the one above were one of many quoted directly from the scanner. And while accurate in what was said, the tweet was erroneous in its context, causing viewers to think that the bombing suspect was in custody, when that was not the case.
So the question becomes: Does more information always equate to a more informed public? Or should the amount of misinformation deter users from seeking this kind of intimate relationship with the police scanner and the Web?
Benjamin Key, a writer for Digital Trends, recently wrote an article which made the argument that information from social media needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
“This is not a news outlet: we are eavesdropping on the info-injected internal communication of men and women literally under fire. There is no fact checker; it has not yet been analyzed… I suspect there will be a heightened demand for access to scanners during breaking news events. But last night also made clear the pitfalls of these new sources – they offer unfiltered data, subject to the bedlam of an active crime scene and the instant-evaluation of officers.”
Listening to a police scanner is nothing new. For years, newsrooms and enthusiasts have listened to the scanner for hours on end. Most newsrooms have one tuned in near the city desk. However, those journalists listening in for anything interesting, have never before presented what they heard on the scanner as news.
This is because chatter over the scanner is known to be inaccurate and sometimes grossly inappropriate. While interesting for reporters to listen to, they rarely report on what they have heard until reportes have time to investigate. That is why @BostonGlobe tweets were generally a few minutes behind other users.
News organizations like the Globe verify information before reporting on it. This preserves the integrity of the organization and maintains the trust between readers and the media.
So, does peer production help or hurt in a breaking news situation?
In a Huffington Post article, Robert Wasserman, the chairman of Strategic Policy Partnership, a Massachusetts-based law enforcement consulting firm, said that social media itself isn’t the issue, but how it is used.
“I think social media can be very helpful if it puts out information and people have the ability to put back the information that they observe,’ he said. ‘There is really an increasing push for transparency in what goes on in a police department, but there are times when transparency is not helpful in an investigation or major event.”
Unfortunately for Wasserman, transparency is a side effect, or some would say, benefit, of peer production, that cannot be switched on or off based on the event.
Even with the non-stop supply of tweets, the demand remains high, especially in breaking-news events.