Digital literacy and the Boston bombings

It’s time to be digitally literate; people’s lives and reputations are at stake.

Trent M. Kays

The tragedy that recently befell Boston will be remembered for generations. Unfortunately, the Boston Marathon bombings have highlighted our inadequacies and our strengths. This tragedy has shown us that we aren’t as secure as we think, that we’re still too willing to give up our liberties for safety and that some traditional media may be losing its grasp on reality.

Boston is strong, and Americans are strong. We often pick ourselves up after tragedy and move forward. However, despite our fortitude, this tragedy has shown the changing nature of trust, source material and integrity.

According to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of all adults over the age of 18 use the Internet. That’s a huge number of people with access to instant and free-flowing information. Sadly, this information isn’t always correct or trustable, yet some easily consume dubious information. What leads people to actively do this?

Given the ease of information access in the digital age, dubious information spreads like wildfire across the Internet landscape. All it requires is for one person to “like,” retweet or post a story with questionable sources. This ability to transfer information quickly becomes dangerous, and innocent people can get swept up in it.

Trial by media versus verifiable evidence isn’t new. It’s been happening since we’ve had media. Given its pervasiveness, social media is particularly prone to trying the innocence through a single tweet or post — for example, Sunil Tripathi.

Tripathi was a Brown University student who went missing last month. He was mistaken for one of the bombers involved in the Boston Marathon tragedy. He had nothing to do with it. But that didn’t stop his name spreading across the Internet quickly. Thanks to Reddit and well-meaning but ignorant users, Tripathi quickly became suspect No. 1. While he may have looked like one of the bombers, he wasn’t. There was no evidence to suggest he was. He just happened to look like someone else, and that was enough to destroy his name.

As disgusting as this misinformation debacle was, it may not have been totally the fault of those who propagated the misinformation. Some people lack basic digital literacy, and the Boston Marathon bombings have shown that this lack encourages people to uncritically push information without considering the consequences. If you’ve never been taught or shown how to interact online, how do you know what to tweet and what not to tweet?

Certainly, those who disparaged the name of an innocent person should be held responsible to some degree. But when traditional media makes the same mistakes as amateur Internet sleuths, we need to understand that it’s time to require a strong digital literacy curriculum from kindergarten through college.

Howard Rheingold, noted educator and digital theorist, understands digital literacy in a specific way: “Digital literacies are networked. In that regard, I see these skills as pointing inward to the individual and outward to the society.” Rheingold’s understanding of digital literacy may be the most applicable to our world. The ability of someone to understand his or her interactions in the digital world and how that feeds into our society is tremendously important.

Though, perhaps these interactions don’t apply to everyone. It would seem like common sense to not highlight police locations or movements when a dangerous criminal is on the loose. But the Boston Police felt the need to post a warning urging the media not to compromise police movements in any venue. To their credit, the Boston Police Twitter feed (@Boston_Police) expertly handled the situation.

Still, it’s troublesome that contemporary media is so foolish that they would not consider how or when to report unverified or life-threatening information. Coupled with the reach and speed of social media and the lack of digital literacy, the situation could have easily become much worse. We need to do a better job with encouraging digital literacy inside and outside of educational contexts. As 21st century networked citizens, it’s our responsibility to use digital technologies, especially social media, mindfully and critically.

The Federal Trade Commission even offers a short work on “Living Life Online.” While somewhat flawed, it is nonetheless filled with good concepts to consider when interacting in any environment. One part is particularly relevant for digital literacy and social media: “The pictures you post and the words you write can affect the people in your life. Think before you post and share.”

I doubt those who spread misinformation about Tripathi actually thought about their actions. I doubt the news anchors and reporters who spread unverified information from their pulpits thought about their actions, but they should have. This type of illiteracy is no longer acceptable. There are too many resources available to people for them to make these detrimental decisions.

Moreover, it is no longer acceptable for educational institutions, community programs and governmental agencies to not have dedicated digital literacy programs. Smart, mindful and critical digital literacy could’ve stopped the tarnishing of a reputation and a name.

In the digital age, humans may have short memories, but the Internet never forgets.