Q: Can raw information do more harm than good?

Yellow tape with the word "danger" repeated on it

A: Raw information can be very valuable. Often when news breaks, tweets and other social media posts with photos, video, and eyewitness observations are the first indications of what has happened. 

However, raw news is UNVERIFIED. So it may be an eyewitness account or it may be flat-out wrong. And yes, sometimes that wrong information can do a lot of damage. 

Perhaps the most devastating examples come from the misidentification of mass shooters and terrorists. After the Boston Marathon bombing, internet sleuths identified Sunil Tripathi as a suspect. Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student, had disappeared in the weeks before the bombing, and his family had started a social media campaign to find him. 

Instead, as NBC News reports, he was wrongly identified as a bombing suspect and several mainstream media reporters repeated the information (without verifying it as they should have). The notoriety made the family’s ordeal even more painful. Tripathi suffered from depression, and his body was later found. He had committed suicide before the bombing. The case was turned into a documentary in 2015. 

At the same time as Tripathi’s name was being dragged through the mud, other people who were at the scene were also mistakenly identified in Reddit subgroups and other social media platforms as suspects. The BBC reports that some of them received death threats. 

Sometimes people share what appears to be raw material from breaking news events, but the process of verification reveals the people weren’t actually there. Reposting photos of looting and hurricane damage from previous disasters and pretending they are from current events is common. The BBC highlighted several cases from Hurricane Harvey in 2017

There are other implications, too. City Councilman Justin Brannan argues that Citizen App, which alerts people to alleged crimes in their neighborhoods, actually makes people fearful and anxious even though the crimes aren’t verified before they go on the app. 

And the Nextdoor social network, which connects people by neighborhood, has been accused of fostering racist witch hunts when, for instance, someone tells their neighbors to be on the lookout for a suspicious “dark-skinned person” driving through their community, the Root reported. Nextdoor says it has changed its algorithm to reduce those problematic posts. 

So yes, when raw information is wrong, it can have damaging and wide-spread implications, from death threats against innocent people to fostering racism in neighborhoods. That’s why it’s so important to know what kind of information you are looking at, whether it has been verified or whether it should be viewed with an additional lense of skepticism.