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Tuesday, April 23, 2013 

Boston: new and old media equally awful.

There are occasions when a distinct minority within society temporarily lose all sense of perspective.  One such moment in this country was the death of Princess Diana, which rather than undermining the royal family when their slow response to the news was criticised seems if anything to have entrenched the institution further into public life.  Another was on the third night of the riots of August 2011, and I have to admit to being at least somewhat drawn in on that occasion, although I was hardly among those calling for the army to be brought in and for the police to start fragging the underclass, as supposedly more rational commentators were.

Thursday and Friday last week were without a doubt another example, even if it was less about ordinary people and instead those in the media and others who spend far too long on social media.  It can't be said that such a outbreak of crass stupidity and silliness hasn't been coming for a while; over here we had the media coverage of the Raoul Moat saga, while in the US, where the media has long had form in covering getaways and the aftermath of incidents of mass violence in the worst way possible, the more recent search for Christopher Dorner flagged up what was likely to happen next.

This said, it's still difficult to wrap your head around just how daft things ended up being. Last week was without a doubt an appalling one for the mainstream media, who on numerous occasions got the facts completely and utterly wrong.  It won't do however to lambast the "old" media while giving the "new" something approaching a pass, as the Graun does in its editorial and others effectively have.  Old and new have become inextricably linked; they feed off each other, which makes those who criticise one and praise the other or write off the old so short-sighted.

The most obvious example of imagining the internet and the supposed wisdom of crowds can solve almost everything was the thread on Reddit (although there were others elsewhere too) dedicated to finding the bombers by going meticulously through all the available pictures and video they could get hold of.  Once details began to emerge of how at least one of the bombers was wearing a hat and carrying a backpack, every person who could be found fitting the description was picked out.  In spite of this, and although they were considered, neither of the Tsarnaev brothers were felt likely to be the perpetrators.  Those that were picked out though were understandably terrified, especially when they were found on social networks, even if this also quickly meant they were disregarded as possibly responsible.  For all the claims that this makes such efforts "self-correcting", the damage either has or quite easily could have already been done.  The relatives of Sunil Tripathi, who in spite or rather because he had been missing for a month was at one point named as a suspect, had to take down the page dedicated to looking for him as it was being bombarded by comments.

This is far from the first time that "internet detectives" have mobilised efforts to find people or name those alleged to be responsible for certain actions, with Anonymous having recently targeted an innocent in the Amanda Todd case, but it is almost certainly the most notable incidence where it seems to have hampered the actual police investigation.  There isn't as yet a full account of why the images of the Tsarnaevs were released when they were and so we should wait before passing full judgement, yet there are plenty of suggestions that they were issued in part because of all the speculation.  This could have quite easily destroyed any chance of the two being taken into custody without the carnage that followed, although again it's just as possible that it did, alerting them to the fact the net was closing in; Dzhokhar was still using Twitter right up until it seems he fled.

Once the pair were being pursued, just how badly things could have gone became clear. We know all too well in this country what can happen when terrorists are deemed to be on the run and the police have been briefed that they could strike imminently; in Boston there was the added impetus that one of their own had been killed. If anything, it's a miracle more weren't injured or killed when so many armed police were marauding the streets with their fingers on the trigger. That it seems Dzhokhar spent most of the time the city was on lock down in the boat he was found in only underlines how differently things could have gone.

The media as a whole for their part didn't have a clue what was going on, although that certainly didn't stop them from suggesting they did. Apart from the odd moment where the BBC were all but making fun of the continuing lockdown and the Graun took to mocking Lindsey Graham, the lack of any insight whatsoever was what we've come to expect from live coverage for the sake of it.

Not that there's been a lot of it since either. In spite of the lengthy profiles on the pair written up on the basis of internet accounts and short interviews with friends and relatives, we don't have the slightest indication as yet why they did what they did. The elder brother clearly had an interest in the more extreme brand of Islam, but that doesn't begin to explain what motivated him to bomb those he previously only hadn't understood. As for Dzhokhar, no one seems to have a bad word to say about him, and rather than being the austere kind or openly religious, he's reported to have been a stoner.

The answer, ultimately, to why it is that America reacts differently to gun massacres than it does to attacks such as the one in Boston is that it's become inured to gun violence. It no longer shocks. It takes something on the level of Newtown when young children were the main victims to really shake people. It also allows everyone to look outside for answers and for something to blame rather than looking closer to home.  The response from old and new media alike since last Monday has done everything to encourage that, nor is it likely to get any better in spite of the merited criticism levelled at both.

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