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Social media is unreliable as a source for real news

The Boston Marathon bombing was a horrible event that challenged the sense of security we take for granted every day. The citywide lockdown that occurred the following Friday further challenged that safety, as the Boston Police Department tried to capture the suspects. In the midst of this terrible series of events, shortcomings of social media came to light.

Many people first heard of the attacks over Facebook or Twitter, and even after initial reports from official news sources, the American public kept to its social Internet sources — or to social entertainment sites such as Reddit — to receive live updates from people on or near the scene. These sources, though useful, come with drawbacks, particularly unreliability of information. As a result of this increased use of hasty Internet updates, many people believed information before it was confirmed or denied by news sources.

While spreading important news as quickly as possible is a commendable goal of social media websites, users need to be aware that sources for that information, often average citizens, usually do not confirm the reports they are posting.

One of the most prominent cases of misinformation was the accusations against Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing since March 16. A thread on the Boston “subreddit” — which has since been deleted — incorrectly identified Tripathi as one of the suspects in the bombings.

Clearly, individuals already turn to social media for instant updates. However, with this growing trend in mind, users need to be aware that these sources are not as reliable as traditional news sources. While they may be useful for learning preliminary information about an event, they should only be used as a catalyst to find out more information from reliable sources.

In the case of the bombings, Facebook or Twitter could confirm that the bombings had in fact happened, while more reputable news sources could provide specific information on the number of victims, the status of the investigation, or the names of suspects.

Social media presents an immense opportunity for information to quickly spread among Internet users. However, users also risk learning incorrect information that — in the midst of a tragedy like the Boston bombing — could provide false hope, elicit false accusations, or present a scenario that may change public understanding of how dangerous the situation truly is.