The bombings in Boston are shining a light on how amateur news hounds with the right social media tools can put the public and law enforcement officers in danger.

In the aftermath of the bombings, roughly 120,000 people turned to police scanner applications for the inside scoop on breaking news as it happened. However, many of those people also posted what they heard on social media sites like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook — and often, it was wrong.

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Boston entered a lockdown state Friday and rumours about unexploded bombs circulated on social media. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

"It's not just the traditional newscasts, where the TV station produces the news and people watch it at home," says Patrick Feng, a University of Calgary media professior. "You have people who can really contribute to the story and that also leads to this issue of a lack of gatekeepers."

With the demand for immediate information in emergencies, police scanners and social media filled a gap and can provide a way for people to feel more informed.

At the same time, it can also lead to social media users endangering officers and bystanders by sharing unverified information.

Dozens of apps available

It's not only large scale emergencies that see people listening in to scanners.

With dozens of scanner apps from around the world listed in the iTunes store, news consumers can listen in on police activity around the world at any time.

"We have seen some activity in monitoring of our scanners in Calgary," says Insp. Mike Tillotson of the Calgary police. "While we always recognize and appreciate the public's help in all of our activities, there are some times we would prefer that they contact us ... rather than taking things into their own hands."

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In the aftermath of the bombings, people flocked to social media for news. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Boston police even took to Twitter to ask people not to endanger officers by sharing what they heard on the scanner.

But with vigilante groups like Anonymous naming the wrong people as suspects, it raises the question of whether social media is helping people to be more informed, or more easily tricked.

"If tactics are talked about on social media, that can put officers and public at risk and in an incident like Boston or any other critical incident, just to keep the incident under control is challenging enough without sometimes putting out the little spot fires that social media can create," says Tillotson."

Other cases raised questions

Boston wasn't the first time social media users found themselves duped.

During Hurricane Sandy, digitally edited pictures of other storm cells circulated widely.

They were claimed to be evidence of the storm's destructive powers, and some media outlets used them in stories, until it was discovered that the pictures were of a different storm.

After the Sandy Hook, Conn. shootings, social media users began naming 24-year old Ryan Lanza as the shooter when in fact, it was his 20-year old brother Adam.

In Canada, recent cases involving Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons have seen vigilante groups name or threaten to name suspects without police confirmation.

Despite the demands from the public, the job of media is to act as fact checkers, not automatic retweeters, says Feng.

"You have to think about whether there are ways to put in some controls or at least ways to slow down this rapid dissemination of information so someone, somewhere, checks the information and says 'We aren't going to put this on the front page of the newspaper until we actually do some more research.'"

Deciding what to share

 

'People are keen to know what's happening.'—Patrick Feng, University of Calgary media professor

While many Canadian newsrooms do have police scanners, there are long-standing agreements with police that prohibit them from reporting on news overheard through the scanner.

Information must first be confirmed through law enforcement or emergency response officials to ensure it's accuracy and context.

With unencrypted scanners available online, amateur news hounds eager to be the first to break the news can post untrue or out of context information to the masses.

"Because of the speed and the sort of desire to jump onto breaking news, people can jump onto a rumour or unsubstantiated claim," Feng says. "It certainly makes it easier to spread information, whether it's correct or incorrect."

The instantaneous nature of social media means that people have become accustomed to not having to wait for information.

Convincing people to wait is one of the challenges facing police teams like Calgary's, says Tillotson.

"People are keen to know what's happening in a situation," Tillotson says. "Sometimes it takes a while to verify things but we will get that information out as timely as we can."