With great power comes great responsibility. Jay Rosen was correct in describing citizen journalism as what occurs “[w]hen the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another,” and every day it grows more apparent that the paradigm of gatekeeping has shifted. Technological and social development have enabled us to employ those tools, and citizen journalism is here to stay.
However, with the sudden and drastic rise in its scope, exercise, and influence, we must remind ourselves that what we “report” as citizen journalists, especially when spoken in chorus with others, can have a very tangible and often serious effects.The propagation of misinformation by acting citizen journalists in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, which transcended the usual confines of Reddit news and eventually received coverage from traditional media sources, exemplifies the nascent power–and potential for misuse–of citizen journalism.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012 was, without a doubt, one of the most tragically heartbreaking events in recent American history. The deaths of twenty first-graders and six school faculty, at the hands of a single disturbed gunman, stunned the nation and shook the collective soul of the American public to a degree of profundity eclipsing even the Columbine High School or Aurora theater shootings, and perhaps matched only by Timothy Mcveigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
With the nation reeling in despondence, confusion, and anger in the wake of the slaughter, citizens around the country began a furious, self-accelerating collective search for answers. It was with intent to assist law-enforcement investigations and inform others that they coordinated online in the forums of news publications and on popular websites of user-submitted news and content, the most consequential of which would prove to be Reddit.
While rampant speculation and countless conspiracy theories abounded across the online world, one of these stories would gain enormous traction–eventually picked up by mainstream news outlets like CNN– and end up having very real consequences, damaging Reddit’s credibility (and by translation, that of citizen journalism) and nearly ruining the life of an innocent man.
In the first few days following the massacre, contributors to “the front page of the internet” mistakenly named the perpetrator of the shooting as Ryan Lanza, brother of the actual shooter Adam Lanza. Ryan, who was working and nowhere near New Town during the shootings, was named as the Sandy Hook shooter on mainstream national broadcast. Powerless to protest his innocence, Ryan was subjected to the unbridled fury of a grieving nation, receiving thousands of personal threats via social media platforms. Only after law enforcement exonerated Ryan did the media realize its mistake and momentum behind the gatecrashing finally begin to dissipate.
This debacle demonstrated just how quickly crowdsourced information can become “mob-sourced.” An even more frightening, or at the very least consequential realization from the incident was that citizen journalism, if driven by vehemence and recklessness, is capable–if even just for a day or two– of influencing and informing traditional media, reversing earlier conceptions of the relationship between the press and the public and turning the conventional conception of gatekeeping on its head.
That revelation is hugely consequential; with great power comes great responsibility. We now know that the power of citizen journalism can emulate that of the professional journalist; the question now is how do we get citizen journalism to emulate the professional journalist’s sense of responsibility, as well?