The events of this past week should provide a cautionary tale about 21st century media/Internet reporting and punditry. Throughout Thursday night and Friday morning, various outlets, including Twitter, were repeating the first things people were hearing or thinking.
The suspects were at first two individuals who are not Chechens and not brothers. This occurred even after CNN was widely embarrassed the previous day for reporting that a suspect was in custody when there was no such thing.
As I write this, we now know a bit more definitively that two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are suspected of being the ones who placed bombs at the Boston Marathon, that they fit the descriptions of Suspect 1 and Suspect 2 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed Thursday night at a press conference, and that they were apparently involved in a robbery of a Seven-Eleven store, a car-jacking, a chase, and then a gun battle with police. The older brother, Tamerlan, died of his wounds produced by the battle. Dzhokhar is still on the run, although the Boston Police Department seem to know the general area where he is likely to be.
Other than that, we really do not know anything. They may or may not have ties beyond the United States, as their family emigrated from Russia. They are of Chechen descent apparently. Chechnya was the scene of one of the bloodiest secessionist conflicts in the 1990s and beyond, but has largely been underreported. But the reality that these two moved to the U.S. when they were quite young means we must be cautious speculating about how events in and near Chechnya might relate to the events of the past week.
The feeding frenzy among the various news outlets has meant that under-sourced reports have gone out quickly, that they and those on Twitter have relied on repeating what they hear on the police scanners. According to journalism students on Twitter, this is a mistake taught in Journalism 101 – police scanners do not emanate truth, so reporters need to do some investigation before repeating what they hear.
One of the challenges modern media face is that there are other outlets outside their control, especially Twitter. I followed Twitter throughout the night, and it has both downsides and upsides. The most obvious downside is that anyone can say anything, and it can be echoed via retweets to larger and larger audiences. The most obvious upside is that corrections quickly emanate, too, so that once we got any kind of statement from authorities, the word went out quickly.
While there is much we can learn from this experience, I have two specific suggestions for media consumption. There will be many folks who approach the media and vice-versa who are portrayed as experts on Chechnya or on terrorism. While there are many people who are experts on the latter, the number of scholars and analysts who study Chechnya, Dagestan, and related regions are few – very few. So, take what these folks say with a huge grain of salt, as the amount of information we do have is dwarfed by the amount of things we need to know before making accurate and enduring assessments.
The second thing is that one’s twitter feed is only as good as the people one follows. The tendency for those on Twitter, just as it is for choosing newspapers, television states and other media, is to follow those that one agrees with. This exacerbates the echo chamber type tendencies. If one is just starting out on Twitter or is seeking to broaden one’s network of people to follow, this is not a bad time, as the tremendous amount of traffic on these events are quickly revealing who is judicious and who is wildly speculative. The same is true, again, for the print and televised media as well. While every outlet is making mistakes this week, some are making far more of them and correcting them far more slowly.
The plethora of media outlets and internet sites mean that there is plenty of competition to try to address the burning questions we have. It is natural that we are impatient and curious, but we must be conscious that false steps may do much damage to innocents along the way. Since most of us cannot really do anything but watch, we can afford to be patient and wait for the fog to clear. It can be very hard, but more information is not always better information.
Stephen Saideman is the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University