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Boston Bombing Sparks Firestorm Of Internet Hate


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings have been identified as ethnic Chechen immigrants. So you might be wondering what, if anything, does that have to do with any alleged behavior that they were participating in. We'll find out more about Chechnya's history and politics, in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at the role social media has played in the investigation and coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. Both the Boston FBI and the Boston Police Department have chosen Twitter as one of their main ways to communicate with the press and the public. But in addition to the useful information they gathered by these means, many Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and comment sections of news stories have been littered with threats, slurs and hate speech directed at Muslims or anybody with a perceived connection to the suspects; and a lot of that was happening even before they were identified.

We wanted to talk more about what this might mean, so we've called Michael Skolnik. He's the editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com. That's a news and entertainment site founded by Russell Simmons. He tweeted about the bombings more than 400 times last week, and talked about some of this kind of content. Also joining us, Rey Junco. He's a faculty associate at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and we often call upon him to talk about some of the trends in social media.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Thanks for having me.

REY JUNCO: Thanks, Michel. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Michael, what have you seen on your site? I know that you talked about the kind of - kind of the vitriol and hatred you were seeing on other sites, but what about on your own site?

SKOLNIK: I think that any time during situations like this, where there are folks involved who have been targeted in the past, especially in this country, we see some of the nastiest and some of the worst part of those who live in this country and across this world. On our site, we didn't see so much hate. We saw a lot of confusion, a lot of answers. Most folks had never even heard of Chechnya, and wanted to know where Chechnya was and what happens in Chechnya; and who the Chechens are, and what the history of Chechnya is. So we did a lot of explanation, a lot of explaining to folks. But I think for the most part, young people that I saw across the board wanted answers, just wanted answers and certainly went to social media, went to the blogs and went to the Internet to get answers because they weren't getting them from central media.

MARTIN: Rey Junco, what about that? I mean the common sections - I think I can say this based on personal experience. The comments sections of a lot of news sites are often a place where people want to go to be - to deliver nasty, you know, messages about anything and so I wanted to ask if the kind of comments that you saw in the wake of the bombing were, in fact, unusual or was there another level to them.

JUNCO: Well, I see it as something that happens, you know, generally online. I think right after a traumatic event is a perfect time for the trolls to come out, so this is - you know, people are disgusted, sick, sad, mourning, they're shocked. Trolling would get an even bigger rise out of people and I think that that certainly plays a role after such an event. I think also, you know, separate from trolling, but related is that it can be a way to get attention, that, you know, there's a stark contrast between posting a hateful comment and what most people are posting.

And I think that we've talked about this before on this show, that online there's a barrier between the communicator and everybody else that's called the online dis-inhibition effect. So people are able to vent and get catharsis without an immediate physical response like in face-to-face situations. We often get - to use an operant conditioning term - punished when we vent inappropriate statements.

Online the opposite may occur. The person who is likely to post the hate speech experiences an echo chamber where they get others with similar beliefs who are following them or reading their comments to support their message.

MARTIN: And when you say trolls, could you just clarify that for people who haven't heard that term before?

JUNCO: Sure. And trolls and trolling is basically getting a rise out of people, people who go online and really just want to get a reaction from people. They really are not connected to their own sense of empathy and are really just looking to make people upset or angry.

MARTIN: And I have to ask, though, because, you know, in the real world, in real life, people just - you just generally can't, in your life, go around just saying mean things for no reason to people...

JUNCO: Right.

MARTIN: ...without getting some kind of reaction. Do you think that trolling is a significant part of why some people are online to begin with because they just want to vent for whatever reason or that this is how they want to express themselves and they enjoy it?

JUNCO: I think there is a minority of the online population that is online to do that.

MARTIN: OK. Michael, at one point you sent a tweet that identified a pair of carjackers believed to have (unintelligible) Tsarnaev brothers as Middle Eastern suspects who are armed, even though you put Middle Eastern in quotes. Tell me about what goes into a decision like that.

SKOLNIK: That was a quote directly from the police scanner. That's what they were saying, so that was a quote directly from the police. The carjacking victim had said that to the police. A lot of folks have said the carjacking victim hasn't spoken. Yes, he did. He spoke to the police right after his carjack.

I think what was interesting, Michel, was that that night I was awake and I saw on Twitter that there was a shooting at MIT campus and I turned on all the traditional network news and nobody was covering it. For 45 minutes, no one had anything live from the scene. All that we had was police scanners, folks, you know, on Twitter, students at MIT, and so we were gathering pieces of information. It was first a shooting at MIT, then a 7-Eleven possible robbery, then there's a carjacking victim, then there was - they're going to a Doubletree Hotel, then they were going to New York, then there was a stolen SUV and then there was shots fired, shots fired, shots fired, grenades, grenades, grenades, explosives in Watertown. And this was before any network news had even started covering it, so we were just getting pieces of information, trying to piece it together.

So that Middle Eastern term came up over the police scanner, I certainly want to say it didn't come from me because I didn't see the two gentlemen.

MARTIN: OK. But I think what you're saying, though - what you're pointing out is that, in a lot of ways, we're experiencing these events in real time and so that can - people are giving the information that they have, essentially without a filter. It has its pluses and its minuses.

SKOLNIK: Absolutely. If you look at the Boston Globe, who did an incredible job of covering this event, their Friday paper was already printed and what do you do when the Boston Globe - they were the ones who broke that these two guys were actually the ones who they were looking for, actually the marathon bombing suspects. And what do you do when your paper is already printed? You go online and you have to put something online immediately because folks are reading at 4:00 in the morning, we were up all night tweeting and Facebooking and putting on our website. They wanted information in real time.

When I was watching the news, they were 15, 20 minutes behind on Friday night when they were getting the guy, so Twitter served as a purpose to give everyone information as it was happening.

MARTIN: And, Rey, to the point of this whole question of the kinds of messages that people are giving out and the concerns that they have about them, I mean the fact is that - we also talked about this on this program - we're all aware of the misinformation that made it into the traditional media, including a newspaper who identified the wrong people as suspects more than once.

And the other thing that people have pointed out is that people often use the same social media tools that they're using to spread vitriol to counteract those messages and other people challenged them. Other people challenged the kinds of comments that are being - so when you look at all of that together, I'm asking you, Rey, what do you think the net effect is of that? Do you think that the net effect - what's the overall narrative that you get? Is it that people use it to vent or that they use it to correct or do they cancel each other out? Do you have a picture in the mind or a metaphor that you can give us about this?

JUNCO: My sense is the overall narrative is that people use it to connect and to engage with others in productive ways and there are some people who use it to vent, and I would say, you know, if I had to put a number to it - and please don't quote me on this because I haven't, you know, looked at the data, it would be almost impossible to look at the data, but I would say it's probably, you know, 80-20 or 90-10, that 80 percent or 90 percent are using social media for very productive purposes.

MARTIN: And the 10 percent, you just - looms large. The 10 or 15 percent just looms large for whatever reason.

JUNCO: Well, sure. And, you know...

MARTIN: In your opinion.

JUNCO: And, you know, when we label it as venting, it could be anything from, you know, venting like - oh, wow, you know, this happened to me today - to the trolling that we're talking about. And I think that some of that venting can serve a purpose. Not the trolling, but I think some of the venting can serve a purpose because then people can get support from others.

MARTIN: Well, I was thinking - and when I was using that term, I was thinking specifically about people who had kind of made these racist assumptions, even before any credible information had been rendered about who was responsible for that...

JUNCO: Sure.

MARTIN: ...including threats to whole groups of people, suggesting that, you know, a whole group of people ought to be, you know, hurt or harmed as a consequence.

Michael, we only have about a minute left. Is there anything you learned from this as a kind of an avid practitioner of social media? I mean you basically live on Twitter. (Unintelligible) here today. But that you've learned from this - is there anything you'd do differently in the future?

SKOLNIK: Sure. I think there were some mistakes made on social media. As you said, there were mistakes made in traditional media as well. I think that that is a learning lesson of how we move forward, of who wants to be first and how to get information first. But I think the positive thing - what I saw - I saw so many new people on Twitter who started following - who had one follower, so you know they're new. They just wanted the information very quickly. This will be a day that we will remember as media will drastically change in this country and traditional media have to figure out how to compete with real time news.

MARTIN: Michael Skolnik is the editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com. That's a news and entertainment site founded by Russell Simmons. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. You have - what - how many Twitter followers? Like a million?

SKOLNIK: I mean, it was...

MARTIN: Like a million?

SKOLNIK: I mean I have a lot. Follow me. Come check me out and we'll have a good time, I swear.

MARTIN: OK. He was here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Rey Junco was with us. He's a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his office. Rey, thank you so much for joining us also.

JUNCO: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.