Crowd-sourcing Terror in Norway

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July 26, 2011
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Soon after it emerged that the perpetrator of last week’s horrific attacks in Norway was a white anti-Muslim reactionary rather than an Islamist extremist, there was a backlash against experts who had speculated that the incident was likely the work of al-Qaeda or another jihadist group.

The problem, however, was not just with the experts who lacked the patience to wait a few hours for evidence to emerge before pronouncing on the motives of the attack. Part of the responsibility also lies with the informal curators of social media networks, mainstream journalists and many others who repeated this speculation, and, in doing so, helped publicize and legitimize it. With the lines between traditional and new media blurring, it’s not surprising that the information then found its way onto the pages and websites of reputable news publications.

The failure, in other words, seems to have been a systemic one. The 24-hour news cycle has given way to an 86,400-second-per-day information flow that creates incentives for experts to comment quickly so they can be “part of the conversation.” The informality and seeming intimacy of social media can also lull analysts into mentioning things on Twitter that they would never say in a traditional publication or media interview. As we have seen, however, comments and judgments travel across these platforms quite easily.

Journalists, too, are under increasing pressure from editors to use social media accounts to provide real-time updates on unfolding stories. The result has been thrilling in many respects. Now, anyone with a Twitter account can send a question to C.J. Chivers, who is arguably the world’s best war correspondent, and there is a chance he will reply from somewhere in Libya. Increasingly, journalists are also engaged in public discussions about the meaning and implications of stories they are still preparing. Some have turned to “crowd-sourcing” to solicit interpretations of specific facts or events from the users of social media.

Moreover, given the immense volume of information, and the premium of speed and relevancy, some enterprising and energetic people have emerged as unofficial curators of news and opinion on specific subjects, thus providing a service for others who do not have time to scan countless sources. Successful curators can attract a large following, but their success depends on maintaining a steady stream of timely information and establishing themselves at the centre of discussions of events as they unfold. They are 21st century social media versions of traditional news anchors, republishing observations that they find interesting, turning to on-the-ground correspondents for updates, and calling on a network of analysts for instant reactions. It is fascinating to follow, and it is revolutionizing the collection and dissemination of “news.”

The experts who weigh in on these discussions (including the terrorism analysts who saw al-Qaeda’s fingerprints on the Norway attacks) are part of this new information system. Many of these analysts have genuine expertise, but expertise is not the same as wisdom; it does not make you immune to the pressures and incentives of a system that encourages snap judgments.

In some respects, this is a very old story.  Early interpretations of events are often suspect and need to be taken with a grain of salt.  In other ways, however, the changing context is cause for concern. Think about all of these elements together: Informal speculation (dressed up as certitude) is republished by self-appointed curators and reputable journalists and gains credibility through repetition, while traditional media organizations, anxious not to be left behind as attention shifts to social media, rush stories onto their websites and provide direct access to their reporters’ real-time, unedited Twitter feeds.

In this world, crowd-sourcing can quickly morph into mob-sourcing. Look out.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.