Is social media turning us all into Big Brother?

If ever there was an example of how social media has changed the world, it’s got to be the rapid capture of the Boston Marathon suspects. Within minutes of the blasts, footage of the unfolding tragedy was being shared around the world via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. From the very outset, law enforcement agencies in the United States were inundated with evidence taken by thousands of spectators using mobile phones, Galaxies and iPads.

As the manhunt began for the perpetrators, officials began scanning the literally thousands of images and pieces of video footage already posted on social media. While the mainstream media scrambled to catch up, Twitter and the rest were already flooded with potentially critical evidence. Sure enough, within 24 hours, one Twitter picture that seemed to capture a young man placing a bag near the blast zone had investigators on the right track. Using that image they then searched nearby CCTV footage plus a host of social media footage for further evidence of the young man.

They soon found evidence of the man and an accomplice calmly walking through the marathon crowds, backpacks slung over their shoulders. Within days the men were dramatically surrounded, one dying during a police chase, the other later being captured.Boston Marathon bombing

I was presenting at a conference on social media when all the drama unfolded. I’d been flying since 4am and hadn’t checked my Facebook, so I was caught unawares when an audience member quizzed me about the events unfolding in Boston. But again, such is the power of social media I was able to check instantly, and give a passable response to his question. During the break, I quickly Facebooked a friend I knew living in Boston to check he and his wife were safe, and was relieved to get an almost immediate reply assuring me they were well.

My point in all this is, I couldn’t have checked so easily on my friends, and the police couldn’t have nabbed the suspects so quickly, without the power of social media. During the 911 tragedy back in 2001, my parents were travelling in the US. It took them four days to contact me because the phone system in the US was either shut down for security reasons, or simply melted down due to the flood of calls that event resulted in as desperate people sought news on loved ones.

They were four frantic days for me, and I’ll never forget them. Sadly, as the Boston tragedy unfolded, many families and friends learned via social media that their loved ones were caught up in the event. While mainstream media blurred out much of the worst imagery in the immediate aftermath, including faces, social media did not. One father, whose son lost both legs, discovered it when he turned to Twitter and searched the #Boston hashtag. An uncensored image of his son being wheeled away by strangers, clutching at his missing legs, was the main image that came up.

When such events unfold, social media is almost instantly flooded with imagery, commentary, commiserations and outrage. And the police increasingly turn to this imagery for evidence. Here in Australia, as runners returned from Boston, our own version of the FBI, ASIO, met each person at various airports around the country. They collected any and all images and footage taken over a period of days prior to and after the event, sending thousands of hours of potential evidence to their US counterparts. US investigators will scan each image for evidence for use in any trial.

I’m not about to debate the positives and negatives of this change, but I do believe our world is now a smaller, more connected place than it was 10 years ago. Now, we are all potential journalists, and witnesses. History unfolds around us and we capture it on smart phones, upload it instantly to Instagram or Twitter and spread the event around the world in seconds.

Often we don’t know the power or importance of what we post. We post simply because we can, and it’s easy. We beat the mainstream press and feed the deluge of commentary and imagery that follows. From sporting achievements, to politics, celebrities and tragedies, there’s never been more recording of history than now.
But it begs the question: are we all inadvertently becoming policemen? And what rights, if any, do we have to refuse to make our content available to authorities?
Could we find ourselves embroiled in lengthy trials, overt media exposure and perhaps even social media attack simply for taking an image at the right time and place? I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this, so I’ll leave my commentary at this, and invite you to post your opinions here. (Please remember this is a discussion on social media responsibilities and rights, not religion, terrorism or politics!)

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