Boston bombings: Twitter is too slow, we're now into nano-news

Real time scanner reporting marks a dangerous new phase

The events in Boston and West, Texas have generated a deluge of focus once more on how communication happens in major events. I've resisted jumping into this, wanting some time for the dust to settle and be able to take a step back. What I see now is very disturbing as I think we are moving in a new phase of information sharing.

Twitter was the gold standard of information sharing--you can't get faster than Tweets from the scene, or so I thought. What could be faster than real time from observers or from official sources? I noted how effective Boston Police Department was in using Twitter--it was THE source for me and many thousands of others--including all major news outlets. In fact, for much of the event, the bulk of media reporting was repeating what BPD's twitter account said. CNN posted images of their tweets when the suspect was captured, and the print headlines directly quoted the tweet.

What could be faster? Police scanners. Through police scanners, apps for getting scanner info on smartphones like 5-0 Radio, services like Broadcastify, and the website Reddit, thousands were following the drama from Watertown as it happened. Below is a screen capture of a Reddit stream with a Redditor providing moment by moment updates from the Boston Police scanner. Through this, those reading this stream would know almost instantly afterwards that the subject hidden in the boat was still alive and that his arms were moving.


It is true, that in response to desperate pleas from Boston Police to not share information from scanners because of it compromising tactical operations and police and public safety, Broadcastify complied and stop the feed to the apps that it feeds. But, that's a little like the Colorado sheriff asking TV stations not to show videos of burning houses. It's nice that Broadcastify complied, but there are so many ways and so many people who would not be willing to comply.

A question is raised here about encryption of law enforcement radios and I admit, this has caused me to rethink radical transparency in law enforcement. However, then it becomes a technology game like police radars and the radar detectors that law breakers love. 

But, I'm not here to talk about law enforcement and this challenge (I smell legislation coming). 

What I am interested in and concerned about is the increasingly important problem of rumors and misinformation.

Much has been made already of the incredible errors of major news outlets such as CNN and New York Post. Most egregious was the false report that the authorities had a suspect in custody when they did not. I got word of that through my AP mobile app--I never saw focus on AP or an apology for getting that important item so wrong. Nieman Lab has an excellent summary of the many posts and reflections on this phenomenon of major news mistakes, mainly because of reliance on social media (although the big error of reporting the arrest that didn't happen was from a traditional anonymous law enforcement source.

Police scanner to app to social network craziness created at least one major human disaster. A police radio communication included the name of a person possibly considered a suspect. It was a young high school student. That name was quickly spread through the Internet through Reddit and through a prominent women's rights Facebook page. These sources apologized, but interestingly, the women's rights Facebook page author said "I'm NOT a journalist and only relaying information from the [Boston Police scanner] and other news sources."

I'm sorry, that doesn't cut it. You may not be a journalist, but you are a media outlet. You have 320,000 followers on your Facebook page, that's more subscribers than most daily newspapers and more viewers than most local news channels. You can't dodge your responsibility. You have an audience--that means you have a responsibility. Relaying information is what the media have done all their existence. You, like others who share knowledge and information, have a moral responsibility to get it right.

OK, enough sermonizing. 

What are we to make of this? We can conclude that the faster information emerges from and about an event the more likely it is to be wrong. We can also conclude that the media, despite their drubbing, will not slow down but no doubt have already downloaded those police scanner apps themselves. We can also conclude that despite the efforts of many using social media to warn against spreading rumors or sharing potentially devastating information without verification, this will continue. Our need for speed of information is simply too great to have these problems stop us. 

These problems would seem insurmountable if Boston Police Department had not provided a powerful answer. Not only did they perform exceptionally well to the applause of the nation, they communicated exceptionally well.

This statement from a summary of their job well done from mashable speaks volumes:

Boston PD entered the conversation immediately because they knew chatter about the investigation would happen with or without them.

Commissioner Davis and Public Information Chief Cheryl Fiandaca, who headed up Boston PD's social media efforts, accomplished what no police department has done before: led conversation with citizens in a time of crisis.

I return to the point made earlier: BPD's Twitter feed was THE source for solid information about the event. When the stories of an arrest circulated, they tweeted that the suspect was still being sought. They were warm and human, reminding all in the celebration after the arrest not to forget the victims and shared their names again. They expressed the reality of their emotion with the now famous tweet: CAPTURED!! 

My congratulations to all those involved and my deepest thanks for proving a model for all others in emergency communication to follow. What is so desperately needed in a time of news happening as events happen is a calm, human, reassuring, fast but completely accurate voice. BPD did that in the best available vehicle. The alternative is to let all the other voices, strident, angry, confused and very wrong control the conversation. To allow the nay-sayers who yet resist this kind of immediate engagement to rule the day is to let the bad guys win. And no law enforcement officer wants to be accused of that.