How Far is Too Far?


Social media has grown hand in hand with the current generation of camera phones becoming ubiquitous.  A camera in every pocket, alongside the ease of sharing photos and videos in seconds globally,  has facilitated a revolution in the way information is shared today.  From Twitter to Facebook, media is shared to millions, with a plethora of additional information just a few clicks away.  According to the technology quiz, I am a digital collaborator, which I believe accurately describes my approach to and use of technology.  I believe in the connection of a larger community and the power of these groups to make a difference and serve a greater purpose.  Whether providing live information during natural disasters, crowd-funding business projects, or sharing footage of events and locales around the world, I believe social media has redefined how a global community can interact, sharing and discussing information like never before.

Unsurprisingly, this level of interconnectedness brings an unprecedented level of power and capacity to the respective communities of social media platforms.  While opportunities to make a significant difference exist, the same can be said for the risk of abuse and unethical use of information.  While these advances in technology allow an ever-increasing flow of information, it is critical that appropriate privacy standards exist to protect individuals and prevent others from accessing personal information.  A fairly shocking misstep and unfortunate series of events took place on the site Reddit.com, a community run site serving to aggregate information on a wide variety of topics from across the web.  Following the tragic events of the April 2013 Boston bombings, the power of social media – the cameras in everyone pockets and the potential of a unified group on the internet became clear.  The inherent power of the technology at the hands of the population was recognized at this time by the government, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking “the public to submit photos, videos or anything suspicious that they may have seen or heard” in their efforts to identify a suspect.  A number of users on Reddit took the search for suspects into their own hands, and created a section of the site dedicated to pooling information about potential suspects.  Scouring photos, videos, personal accounts, eBay purchases, and more, the group was engaging in a ‘witch hunt,’ targeting a number of individuals and exposing the “suspects’” personal information to a number of social media sites. 

The group on Reddit investigating did not provide any information of merit in regards to finding the suspects, who were discovered and apprehended by law enforcement.  However, the group led a devastating campaign against innocent individuals, and brought a missing student into the public eye.  22 year old Sunil Tripathi was a student at Brown, who had gone missing before the bombing, and was exposed to public and spurned by the group on Reddit who had formed a case against him.  Tripathi’s family was dragged into the public’s eye, their son ostracized and a devastating allegation set against their son by an angry online mob, an injustice that our legal system is designed to protect against.  The concept of ‘innocent before proven guilty’ was somehow thrown out the window and the speculation not only proved to be unnecessary, but destructive to more innocent people, who they aimed to avenge.  The group and site moderators formally apologized, but the severity of this situation was mitigated through technology and the spread of social media, and the family had suffered doubly, worried about their missing son and bearing the wrath of the online community.  Sunil Tripathi was found dead less than a week later. 

As Uncle Ben taught us, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  Privileged with overwhelming amount of information and resources available to us, there exists a tremendous risk, one that reared its ugly head in this case.  Adding to a family’s troubles, and subjecting them to such treatment could only serve to deepen the impact of finding out their son had passed away.  While it may be unfair to use ‘atrocious,’ this act was ugly and embarrassing on a number of levels, and must set a precedent for privacy and respect among the online community, regardless of what may be possible.  A national tragedy should never escalate to a degree where we instigate internal conflict, and while the power of the people is certainly valuable, it is a double-edged sword: the events surrounding the Boston bombing magnify the issues and impacts of social media and the revolutionary way in which connects us.

Suggested additional reading: New York Times piece comprehensively covering this topic as well as the role of social media throughout these events. 

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2 comments on “How Far is Too Far?

  1. What a paradigmatic case of the power of technology combined with social systems. In fact, I think we should always keep in mind that “technology” is ALWAYS social. There is no false distinction between the “technological” and “the social.” Thinking that way can lead to errors of theory. For example, if we think that the location of cameras in phones is the cause of the Sunil tragedy, we ignore that it is the way that cameras interact with snap judgments and with a vigilante sense of justice. THe Sunil case would not have played out the same way in Canada, or Japan, or Mexico.

    Can we evolve codes of ethics for users? Can Ben’s folksy maxim be expanded? Is it up to network providers, technology producers or the government to encourage specific usage of technology?

    We worry about the power of the surveillance of the nation state. Fair and valid. But aren’t we all part of a surveillance society when we can all “spy” on each other with cameras everywhere?

    Or, is that misguided. Whatever is troubling maybe compares to the overreach by governments and corporations. maybe this case is the powers that be worried about the masses with pitchforks while those powers have all the (IT) tanks, planes and so on.

  2. Pingback: Blog Council on Nerd Alert | Let's Get Ethical

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