I read Dear Abby’s column…every day…and have for at least seven years. In that same vein, I can’t keep myself from scrolling through the discussion boards at the bottom of articles posted on CNN and STLtoday. I guess it’s my personal version of ogling car wrecks – I’m not good with gore, so I have to get my dose of sick wonderment by frequenting Agony Aunt columns and scrolling through message board comments written by bizarros from around the world chiming in on topics about which they know next to nothing (is that too generous?).
Initially, these musings that read like an un-funny version of a Jack Handey “Deep Thought” were simply grating.
Then, as social media became the impetus for “Breaking News,” these message boards, whether they begat or expanded upon totally unfounded info, became inconvenient. We weren’t certain if Michael Jackson was dead, that sort of thing. Now news agencies are using social media as the news. Screenshots of tweets are commonplace in mainstream reporting, not just on E! news. My grandmother calls me after the 5 o’clock broadcast every other day to ask me to explain what facebook is.
This is scary to me, and I don’t just mean having to dissect the inner workings of facebook with an 88-year-old. In a recent national “moment,” the bombing of the Boston Marathon, there was a constant flow of misinformation (e.g. the JFK library issue, the “Saudi National,” the mysterious person taken into custody). It seems fair to attribute this to haste in part, but a slew of sites acted recklessly in trying to scoop the others on minute details, and frustratingly, no one bothered to hold them accountable – that I heard about, anyway.
Finally, news broke last week that two people who were wrongfully skewed by The New York Post to have been involved in the bombing have filed suit against The Post for defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. A picture of the two at the marathon, along with a nasty rumor about their involvement in the bombings, made the rounds on Reddit and other social media sites, along with the hundreds of other hoax tweets. The men turned themselves into police when they were made aware of the rumor's circulation, and the police declared they weren't suspects and cleared them to leave. The following morning, one of the men arrived at work; the other to a track meet – because he is only sixteen and still in high school – to find that their picture was on the front page of The Post, insinuating that they were involved.
The Post responded to the filing by reiterating its original statement to CNN back in April –
“We stand by our story…We did not identify them as suspects.”
I don’t know what else The Post is supposed to say (although “No comment” comes to mind), but it feels like it is splitting hairs. The headline in the photo is “BAG MEN” (I suppose The Post didn’t find “WE ARE IDENTIFYING THESE TWO MIDDLE-EASTERN-IN-APPEARANCE YOUNG MEN AS SUSPECTS” to be as artful as “BAG MEN”), the sub-headline is “Feds seek this duo pictured at Boston Marathon,” and there were two more pictures, one with their images circled, accompanying the article. If a court finds The Post’s actions amount to accusing the two men of a crime, that would be actionable per se, meaning the plaintiffs wouldn’t have to prove special damages, and only need to prove that The Post’s statement was published to a third party.
Hopefully, some sense of normalcy can be restored to these young men, who already have dealt with discrimination and threats, and will likely continue to suffer from their perhaps permanently damaged reputations. There have been several extreme mistaken identity cases such as this – most notably, the story of an Iranian teacher, Neda Soltani, whose story is too complicated to appropriately sum up here, but who had to flee Iran in fear of her life, and still remains in Germany in essential exile, all due to news outlets mistakenly using her picture from social media.
I hope for these two gentleman, Neda, and the rest of us who could very well be implicated in the next media mishap, that this case will encourage and result in clarification about how best to responsibly report using the clichéd-but-true double-edged sword that is social media.