Checking Twitter is a mixed bag.
One day you open it to find out Kobe’s season is over or that your favorite TV show got picked up by Netflix. Another day a startup you love was either sold or shut down. Sadly, like many of us, you might check your stream and find out that an old friend killed himself.
Yesterday was the worst of these experiences: a terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon.
Or was it a terrorist attack?
Perhaps it was a gas explosion?
Or maybe two gas explosions?
Is that possible to have two gas lines explode? Wait, could this be another 9/11 or 7/7?
If it is, who is responsible?
The speculation starts in our minds the moment the shock fades -- and boy does our shock fade quickly these days. As a society, we process instantly, be it terrorist attacks or viral videos.
We move from ‘shock and retweet’ to ‘reply and incendiary post’ in minutes or hours, and then we get meta: with one side telling the other to shut up and that reactions are not right, not wanted or somehow inappropriate.
'Now is not the time to speculate!' is the rallying cry.
We all process so fast: one minute we’re in shock and the next we are criticizing each other’s reactions to shocking events.
Perhaps we should be more forgiving of news anchors and to each other in moments of stress, fear and outrage?
No one can put their foot in their mouth when it’s closed, but the quickest path to resolution is our words.
Should we speak or shut up?
Cognitive dissonance makes us uncomfortable for an instant, but we must fight through it to find the space to tolerate the ambiguity.
Yes, stupid and hateful people of the world should not speculate -- or speak. Yet, the stupid people are the ones who typically fill the space while the intelligent people ponder. It’s like every business meeting at a big company you have ever been to: the people with the worst ideas blabber on and on, while the smart people shut up so they can end the meeting and get back to work.
People with good intent and high intelligence should speculate. They should speak. Especially in times of crisis.
Think about it: this is the first major terrorist attack on US soil since social media hit the mainstream. That’s not some dorky social media, pageview-grabbing headline -- it’s a really important fact.
Think: while there were more photos and videos of 9/11 than any attack before it, we didn’t have Facebook, YouTube, Vine, Instagram or Twitter back then, so they were only shared once the media decided to share them. (Some folks posted to web pages--but very few because back then you needed to ‘call your webmaster’).
Twitter is where all the smart and important people in the world spend their time, which means instant coverage of these horrific events unfolds there in real time. Sure, there are spammers and idiots on Twitter, but smart people favor Twitter over any other social network by far.
Which means that the most important evidence in any crime is already public: videos of the crime taking place.
Video is the holy grail of the criminal justice system because it does an awesome job of resolving 'reasonable doubt.' That whole, 'I saw it with my own eyes!' thing.
You can be sure that in the coming days we will see:
1. many, many photos of possible suspect(s)
2. videos of possible suspect(s)
3. people seeing, or even reacting to (perhaps ignoring), the crime as it takes place
4. perhaps even video or photos of someone trying to stop the crime
Think about all that for a moment.
Yet folks say, 'Don’t speculate'?!
Ummmm, that’s exactly what we need to do!
Sometimes the rules change. Sometimes dogma needs to be flipped: 'Shut up and let the cops do their job’ in the case of a terrorist attack is EXACTLY wrong.
Speak up, speculate and investigate might be the best practice today. Certainly the police want our tips, with Boston PD asking for tips on their @boston_police handle.
Shouldn’t we all be looking for the needle in the haystack of Twitter photos and Vine videos? I hate to say ‘crowdsourced investigation,’ but that is what this is.
In fact, we should all be thinking about why this happened. We should consider what was the motivation of the people who did it and if it could have been avoided.
We should not sit back passively.
We should be actively discussing and handicapping who could have done this: Al Qaeda, a lone-wolf inspired by Al Qaeda terrorists (like Fort Hood), anti-government Oklahoma City home-grown terrorists, a mentally disturbed individual (like Sandy Hook) or bullied kids (like Columbine).
Or what if this is someone new.
What if this is a new radical portion of the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements? That’s possible, and speculation and handicapping are exactly how to get there.
What are the odds that this could be Al Qaeda? Domestic? Important to think about that.
We should, of course, do this intelligently.
Most crimes are solved because of insider tips. The cops in their best moments are lead generators and evaluators. Is this a solid lead? How solid? How many resources should we put toward it?
The Cost of Speculation
Is there a cost to speculation? I’ve given that a lot of thought. The only cost is that you might encounter speculation you don’t like, which would include a) folks using the event to push their agenda, b) feedback from people who are mentally damaged in some way or c) dopey people with dopier ideas.
Guess what, those folks are going to talk either way!
Racists are already blaming Muslims and telling them to go back to their country, and anti-Obama protesters as well as gun-control activists are spinning this story. My personal favorite was Cenk from the Young Turks commenting about the massive reaction to this story vs. Sandy Hook (summarized: the media will gloss over the death of 20 kids with guns, but can’t wait to blame unknown, anonymous brown people for possibly killing 3 people with bombs).
Bottom line: we’re already paying for the cost of bad speculation, with not enough upside from the smart folks.
Hacktivists: The Modern Day A-Team (or Ronin)
It doesn’t take a major leap for folks to imagine crimes being solved on Twitter -- or other online forums. Reddit has a section called /RBI (Reddit Bureau of Investigation) that is designed just for this purpose, and that community has solve a couple of crimes including a hit-and-run car theft.
Things get really interesting, however, when you add hackers with an agenda. Right now hackers are trying to get justice for Rehtaeh Parsons, a teen who was allegedly raped in Canada, shamed with photos of sexual abuse and subsequently killed herself. They’re organized under the hashtag #OpJustice4Rehtaeh on Twitter. And the Canadian government is now (finally) investigating her death.
Why are hackers so effective?
Because they don’t need warrants.
They simply hack into the social media, Gmail and other accounts of suspects and collect clues. They share them with each other and then make them public.
We can debate if we want to live in a world with vigilante justice, but the truth is, if a bunch of hackers get into 100 people’s email accounts after compromising an INSERT-TOPIC-HERE message board, and one of those turns out to be the Boston bomber, we’re gonna turn a blind eye.
Especially after the CIA waterboarded countless individuals, and who knows what else, and got away with it.
Not to mention the fact that us torturing folks might be inspiring more terrorism -- oh wait, intelligent folks shouldn’t speculate.
The Cost of Hacktivism
If we can agree on the definition of hacktivism being more Columbo than Vic Mackey or Judge Dredd (vigilante-style), we should discuss the cost. The cost will be a loss of privacy and individuals being tried in public.
Hacktivists aren’t going to start whacking people like Batman (although a Redditor claimed he gave his sister’s abusive boyfriend a ‘hot shot.' Fascinating crime story, but not hacktivism).
I’m not advocating an 'open sourced court of public opinion' -- far from it -- but that is the age we are moving to.
We championed the mantra ‘information wants to be free’ as a rallying cry for the digital age, and now we’re here.
And how does it feel that at any time our privacy and presumed innocence could be flushed?
Sidenote: We haven’t even brought Google Glass into this discussion. In five years, sadly, there will be a terrorist attack somewhere in the world that will be captured from the *victim's* perspective, right up until their deaths. Morbid and hard to comprehend -- until it happens and then we will expect to have first-person video evidence from these events. We live in the future, to be sure.
Now, this isn’t one of my pieces where you get to the end and I’ve laid out an exact plan to solve a problem. Nope, this is the kind of email where I just share some observations and say, ‘It is what it is and I have more questions than answers.’
My prayers go out to the people of Boston.
Sure, I hope the Knicks crush the Celtics in the playoffs next week, but the reason New Yorkers and Bostonians have such great rivalries in sports is because our DNA is so damn close. Sadly, it's closer now that we both share dealing with terrorist attacks in our lifetime.
And to the terrorist(s) who f@#$ked with the good people of Boston -- big mistake. Big, big mistake. We’re coming for you.