It’s Always Amateur Hour in the Digital Age
When the 1991 Gulf War put CNN on the map, that was the beginning of the end. Ted Turner’s experiment in 24 hour news had found a spectacle — a popular and relatively safe war — that defined the model for how a network can fill a round-the-clock broadcast, even without news to report, and certainly without depth or context. From the soiling of sleep-deprived Bernie Shaw at the al Rasheed Hotel to young Wolf Blitzer’s insipid repetition of the question, “Will we carpet-bomb Baghdad?” at the Pentagon briefings, CNN was, in my estimation, the true vanguard of the of the inevitable rise of the amateur, who now dominates the digital age. I would argue that we can draw a line that begins with that Gulf War coverage and ends (or at least pauses) with the Redditors who contributed to the online lynch mob chasing the wrong man as events were unfolding in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Take the worst aspects of 24 hour news — the false value of the scoop, the show business cult of personalities, the general egomania, the political biases — add performance-enhancing drugs, and you get Social Media. For one thing, both the design and the dynamics of Web 2.0 are dominated by the sensibilities of males 18 – 24, which is the same demographic whence most terrorists, anarchists, and other extremists come. Okay, most of this demographic is comprised of decent people, but there’s no getting past the fact that males 18 – 24 can be the dumbest creatures on Earth because they’re mostly made of testosterone and ego. And when we give these beings tools like Reddit and a mission in the form of a thread called “findbostonbombers,” we shouldn’t be surprised when it fosters a virtual posse, who indeed spent many hours pursuing and harassing the family of an innocent young man.
Sunil Trapathi was found dead this week from an apparent suicide, although it is important to note that his taking his own life has not been linked to the online pursuit. Trapathi, a solid student at Brown University, apparently suffered from depression and had been missing; and his disappearance may have been a factor in the initial rumors that snowballed into the swarm of media and private citizens harassing Trapathi’s parents both at home and on the Facebook page they had created in an effort to search for their son. So, these careless Redditors and the news “professionals” who followed their lead didn’t contribute to Trapathi’s death, only to his family’s pain and suffering coincident with his death. In light of the outrage and near martyrdom following the suicide of Aaron Swartz, it may be time for certain Redditors to do a little soul searching AFK, as it were, on the potential for the righteous crowd to do great harm.
Of course, the irony that jams hard in the throat in this case is that Reddit and its users are highly vocal advocates of the “open web” and are not shy about using incendiary, uninformed language to lambaste precisely the kind of surveillance techniques used by trained professionals to track the right guys. There is literally no end of ill-considered, mathematically impossible, fear-mongering out there on the subject of privacy invasions and government overreach; and while I certainly advocate staying on top of our government, this does not mean that every lummox with a keyboard is suddenly a qualified analyst in forensic criminology. And I believe if the majority of the people involved in the forum chasing Trapathi were honest with themselves, they’d have to admit that their motives were probably part ego, part cool-factor — what we might call social-media overreach. But this appears to be an underlying orthodoxy of the next generation vis a vis the Web — that nobody in a position of experienced authority actually knows anything, and that the almighty crowd, connected through technology is superior to other systems of social order. It is a mindset that we might say puts the hack in hacktivism.
Executives at Reddit have publicly apologized for these events, although I’m not sure why, as this is inconsistent with their baseline position and indeed the position of nearly every major stakeholder in the dynamics of Web 2.0. Not unlike the NRA, the general attitude from Reddit, from Google, from Twitter, etc. is that their technologies are merely tools, and that people will use them as they see fit. “You cannot blame the road,” they will say, “because you were hit by a truck.” And I couldn’t agree more. People will use these tools as they see fit, and these tools are well designed to ensure that self-righteous vigilantism, bullying, and, yes, even the messages that inspire young men to make bombs are now part of everyday life.
© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.Follow IOM on social media: