Earlier this month, Philadelphia magazine hosted Thinkfest, a cool event where lots of forward-thinking locals got to wax poetic on all the awesome stuff they want to do—and are doing—for our great city. During a conversation about social media, prominent newsman Jim Gardner, a tweet machine these days, wondered how differently news would have been reported if Twitter existed on 9/11. At the time, I was horrified, thinking of all the trolls I see every day on the Internet. I can’t imagine all the hate that would’ve spewed from the mouths of ignorant people. I couldn’t imagine a worse place for social media.
And then Friday happened.
By now, we all know the nauseating details of Adam Lanza’s vicious, seemingly inexplicable attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It is, like 9/11, a tragic moment in American history to which we’ll all look back and remember where we were it happened. I was sitting at my desk, doing my hourly scroll through Twitter, when I saw the news trending. Moments later, I saw Slate post the profile photo of Ryan Lanza, who we now know is the brother of the shooter. At the time, he was misidentified as the suspect and Twitter absolutely exploded when Buzzfeed posted a link to his Facebook page.
Anyone with an internet connection knows how this part of the story ended: Adam had his brother’s ID in his pocket and media outlets all over the country erroneously shared Ryan’s Facebook profile, even though Ryan was posting—proving that he was alive when we already knew that the Sandy Hook shooter was dead.
A lot has been written over the last few days about the impact of social media on breaking news. It’s easy to demonize our Tweet-happy culture for spreading lies and misinformation. In a world where news is 24/7 and everyone with a cell phone is a reporter, news travels faster than anyone ever could’ve imagined. (To wit: I graduated college in 2007, before Twitter was even really a thing and now I can’t imagine newsgathering without it.)
But it’s wrong to blame Twitter and Facebook for the mistakes of sloppy journalists. Used correctly, these are powerful networks dispersing news. As Philly Mag’s social media editor, I found profound success from Tweeting information about Hurricane Sandy. I heard from readers from all over the tri-state area who had no other access to information than what they could get on their phones. I say this not to toot Philly Mag’s horn, but to exemplify the power of social media during a crisis. Sandy Hook is, of course, a more intense situation, but nevertheless,for every bit of of incorrect information reported on Facebook and Twitter, there was a piece of information that brought one person comfort or knowledge. That’s the interesting thing about social media: It’s like a self-cleaning oven. If facts are reported incorrectly, it’s only a matter of time—usually mere minutes—before users have corrected and dispersed the factual information.
My point is simple: We would never question the authority of television news for a mistake made by an anchor or the importance of print newspapers for a mistaken fact. As a colleague pointed out, “Dewey Defeat Truman” happened long before Twitter was even conceived. Social media is not the downfall of quality reporting.
We should blame sloppy journalism—and the journalists who forget basic reporting skills in an inappropriate rush to be the first to announce news—for the spread of lies. Additionally, if Twitter equalizes the playing field by making every individual a reporter, then we must ask that every Twitter user be as skeptical as the average journalist. This means we can’t believe everything we read on the internet. Even when it comes from news sources we find credible.
What would’ve happened if we had Twitter on 9/11? We’ll never know. But I do know that I’m awfully glad I had it during the Sandy Hook crisis, because I learned so much, so fast. And with a discerning eye, I was able to understand what my fellow Americans were going through and offer up kind thoughts—in the form of Tweets and prayers.