Social media networks attempt to capitalize on tragedy

Max Miller – Staff writer – NMiller@unca.edu

Nobody can argue the worst people involved in the bombing of the Boston Marathon are the terrorists whose actions left three innocent people dead and many more injured.
But the second worst are people who flocked to social media sites in order to exploit the tragedy as it was still unfolding.
In the wake of this unexpected attack, citizens nationwide demonstrated a great outpouring of sympathy and prayer via Twitter and Facebook.
But there were others who decided the bombing was the perfect catalyst for securing precious hits on their websites.
Take BuzzFeed, for example.
When the site is not aiding people in procrastination with lists about cats and Ryan Gosling, some of its staff members spend their time pretending they are a viable source of news.
They were quick to post a streaming news update during the chaotic first hours following the two detonations.
This move was harmless, and allowed lazy browsers to keep up with the aftermath without having to go to the effort of opening the Huffington Post in another tab.
But on the evening of the bombings, BuzzFeed Senior Editor Katie Notopoulos, shortly after speculating what other historical figures might have been “Beliebers,” posted an article entitled, “29 Reasons to Love Boston.”
The article did not mention the bombing in any way.
It did not applaud the Boston police force or emergency response crews for their efforts in distilling the bedlam and assisting more than 180 injured civilians.
Instead, it was typical BuzzFeed fare.
The list praised everything from Aerosmith to Boston’s serpentine downtown streets. The timing was deliberate.
Notopoulos threw together a fluff piece to reel in some web traffic while Boston was on everyone’s minds.
Even more callously, some unknown Instagram users began circulating photos purported to show the 8-year-old killed in the bombing.
The photos identified the child as running in the marathon and as a survivor of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Interestingly enough, some photos showed a boy while others showed a girl.
The child who died in the Boston bombing was a boy, and he could not compete in the marathon because it was only open to adults.
The entire scam was a perfect storm of emotional manipulation designed to take advantage of people who were trying to stay informed as details unfolded.
It takes a certain kind of sick person to twist a child’s death to their advantage just to get attention on the Internet.
Even sicker, though, might be the wannabe vigilantes who sat at their computers, scanning photographs of the marathon to make haphazard and often racist accusations of innocent people.
Devotees of sites like Reddit and 4Chan spent the days following the bombing conducting a massive digital manhunt.
Somehow, nobody pointed out the absurdity of a large group of civilians expecting they could outdo the FBI at their job.
The search turned up just about anyone who wore sunglasses or carried a backpack to the marathon, and often narrowed in on people who appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin.
Sunil Tripathi was one such victim.
The 22-year-old Brown University student was identified on Reddit as being singled out as a suspect on a Boston police scanner.
Within hours, Tripathi’s name was making the rounds on Twitter and many viable news sources, all in spite of the fact that he was never an official suspect.
He has been missing since March 15 and still has not been found.
On top of the grief his family has been going through trying to find him, they had to deal with false allegations that he was a terrorist. Salah Barhoum was another false suspect.
The 17-year-old was also picked out by Reddit, and his photo made it to the cover of The New York Post. Barhoum treated the incident with astounding good humor, and turned himself in to authorities who quickly confirmed he was not suspected.
With the actual suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, dead and in custody respectively, the historic focus of this tragedy might wind up falling on social media’s ridiculous role in perpetuating misinformation surrounding the event.
Whether selfish bloggers attempted to use the bombing to gain visibility or incompetent Redditors slandered innocent people with accusations of terrorism, the online response to this event has been stupid on an unprecedented level.
Social media has fueled a near-voyeuristic obsession with breaking news.
Instead of allowing professionals to investigate and report on the incident, people blew every rumor out of proportion on a nationwide scale.
The Internet has made a lot of incompetent people believe they are writers, graphic designers, musicians and political pundits.
When it makes people believe they are on par with The New York Times or the FBI, the situation has gotten out of hand.

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