From almost 700 kilometres away, I knew that something terrible had happened at the Boston Marathon six minutes after the bombs went off. The news didn’t quite move at the speed of light, but that’s about as close to it as information is likely to ever move. The news, of course, came to me via Twitter. The smoke hadn’t cleared when the first reports of “explosions” and “big bangs” were being tweeted, and retweeted. Photos and videos followed soon after. Many of them showed carnage beyond what any newspaper or TV station would ever publish or broadcast. They can’t be unseen.
Following right on the heels of all the news about the blasts were the wise voices of journalism recommending caution, at best, and skepticism, at worst. Some degree of caution is always called for in the aftermath of a large, dramatic (traumatic, in this case) breaking-news event. There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. But what was intriguing was the inherent skepticism about Twitter on display, ironically, often on Twitter itself. In the aftermath of the event, as we start to get a fuller picture of what actually happened, it’s clear that while Twitter wasn’t perfect as a news medium, it actually held up … pretty well.
There is the speed of Twitter, of course. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part. Monday’s attacks proved an interesting, if completely unintentional, experiment. Just as news of the attacks was reaching me in Toronto, the National Post’s news section editors were sitting down for their afternoon news meeting. I walked over to the boardroom to make sure they’d heard the news, and just as I was popping my head ’round the door, the editors were all reaching for their buzzing smartphones. In the footrace just to alert editors that something — something — was happening, Twitter won. Not by a huge margin. I was actually surprised how quickly the wires and conventional media alerts did get word of the Boston attack out, probably thanks to the heavy media presence at the Marathon. But Twitter still won.
Setting aside the speed, and just looking at the content, Twitter held up fine. A lot of erroneous things were tweeted, and then retweeted around the world in an instant. Some examples include reports of multiple bombs being found and disarmed before they could explode, of surgeons finding ball bearings in the wounds of the injured and of a bomb blast at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. By Tuesday morning, all of those reports were known to be false (though there is still some ambiguity about whether the bombs contained metal objects designed to wound as flying shrapnel, with some surgeons saying they were finding metal nails they believe were part of the bomb).
The interesting thing about all the erroneous reports, though, is that all of them were also made by the media and official agencies. The Boston police had said they were locating and disarming unexploded munitions. News agencies were reporting ball bearings in the flesh of victims. The commission of the Boston police force went on TV and “confirmed” a third incident at the JFK library.
In other words, the much-maligned Twitter didn’t do much better than conventional sources of hard news, but it wasn’t doing much worse, either.
I’m not saying we should abandon conventional media for Twitter. Twitter is essentially a giant eyewitness report writ large — visceral, informative, but appallingly incomplete. Twitter’s useful, especially given its speed, but it isn’t built (or resourced) to go deeper, like a traditional news organization can. Twitter also, clearly, has no function akin to an editor, so once false news gets out there, it can linger. The sheer volume of tweets coming out can also obscure as much as illuminate. Can you even imagine how Twitter would react to a 9/11-style attack today? It would be impossible to see the forest amid the millions upon millions of rapidly appearing trees.
But I’m not sure the grizzled veterans of traditional media are right to cast quite as much doubt on it as they’re wont to do. At the very least, it would behoove us to keep some perspective. The wisest of the traditional journos took pains to remind their readers, listeners and viewers that the early reports we were making were bound to evolve and change. It’s an accepted reality of our business. I don’t see why we should hold Twitter to a higher standard than that.
UPDATE: As this piece was being written, reports were emerging that ball bearings may indeed have been used in the attacks, which contradicts an earlier report that contradicted an even earlier report. It is with an appropriate sense of irony that I stress that this information, which Twitter reported first, may yet be ultimately confirmed … pending possible further changes in what the traditional media, including this writer, are able to determine.
This column and photo were originally published in the National Post. It was republished on J-Source with the permission of the writer Matt Gurney.