We need some perspective

Times and technology change, but the basics of human nature do not.

When it comes to investigating high-profile crimes, it’s not really so different in 2013 than it was in 1996, except that wrong information spreads more quickly.

In the summer of 1996, security guard Richard Jewell found a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. He was first credited with saving lives, then denounced as a suspect in planting the bomb, one eerily similar to what was used in Boston. Jewell had discovered the bomb, reported it to police and started moving people away from the area before the explosion, which resulted in one death and 111 injured.

Fast forward to the third week of April 2013. Bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring 264. During the same week, letters suspected of containing the deadly poison ricin were intercepted in the mail to a senator from Mississippi and to President Barack Obama.

And much like what happened in 1996, the desire of people around the world to know more led to misinformation being disseminated. The biggest difference is that with social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, wrong information gets a life of its own far quicker than the wrong information circulated by investigators and sources about Richard Jewell 17 years ago.

First came the wrong report that police had made an arrest in Boston on April 17. It would have been wonderful if they had, because that would have prevented the night of gunfire, death and mayhem that followed on April 18, spilling into the evening of April 19.

And when one of the suspected terrorists was caught bleeding in a boat in backyard storage, initial reports that spread like wildfire indicated he had fired on police at that point. Later, as the fog of the hunt dissipated, the issue of gunfire in those final moments became unclear.

And in Mississippi, a celebrity impersonator’s name was tossed about as the man was run into the court system. There was one problem: The evidence of ricin linked to him was lacking. The charges were dismissed, but could be refiled if the feds find better evidence.

The issue is that information is moving far too quickly nowadays, and once something is even hinted at by a source, it spreads like wildfire over the Internet, to countless computer and smartphone and tablet screens.

What is lacking is perspective and a chance to process information. Yes, authorities got the facts horribly wrong about Jewell, but there was sufficient time to process what the facts were at the time and the news was based on fairly sure sources of information.

In the Boston and ricin cases, authorities were doing as much reporting as the reporters used to. There was a drive to manage and disseminate information as quickly as possible. It wasn’t just that the news media and all the folks on the social networks were getting it wrong. The authorities themselves didn’t have enough time to process what they were saying and doing. In a week where actions and words blurred into one and the same thing, it was easy to understand how major pieces of information were both acted upon incorrectly and disseminated incorrectly.

There are no safeguards possible against such situations in the future. The world has the ability to listen at a split second’s notice to anything from anywhere, to see raw video without context immediately and to read rapid-fire single lines of information without time even for those releasing the information to interpret what they know.

And that means we’ll see more instances of the incorrect taking on a life of its own.