Is a Reddit commenter getting too much credit for being a step ahead of everyone else after the Danzig Street shooting—or not enough?
As media outlets threw everything they had in the direction of Scarborough on Monday night after more than two dozen people were shot at a Danzig Street block party, someone else was discovering tweets and tying them all together in the comments of a post on Reddit, the super-popular social news site. You might’ve seen the comment, posted by a user named BitchslappedByLogic and kept updated over the course of the night and into the next day, by now, but if you haven’t yet, it’s here, and this is some of it:
Apparently, it was this guy’s party, as he says here. He’d been planning this party since July 7th. The pictures indicate that a ‘hennesey party’ is exactly what it sounds like: a party w/ lots of hennesey liquor provided.
This guy apparently anticipated that problems might happen at the party. This girl, too. This guy too. So this could be the result of a pretty well-known beef.
This person was shot. As was this person. This person was also shot — twice. This person was also shot, according to this tweet. This may be her in recovery, though I can’t be sure. It is, in any case, someone recovering from a gunshot wound.
This woman was shot and apparently killed. Her and her boyfriend were celebrating a 4 month anniversary. I’m confident enough to say that she is the Shyanne who many locals on twitter are talking about, based on comparing pictures from her account to those posted by others. She was apparently well-connected. One tweeter said that “This is Shyanne’s people we’re talking about. Now it’s gonna be war.” Here is a memorial collage that is making the rounds. Here is another memorial picture tweeted by someone.
BitchslappedByLogic isn’t a journalist, or at least wouldn’t call themselves one, but that didn’t stop Maclean’s Jesse Brown from calling their work “the most riveting piece of journalism I’ve read in recent memory,” or GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, formerly of the Globe, from using it as an example of “how social media is changing both the way we consume and the way we produce journalism.” The Star‘s public editor, Kathy English, has since countered that the paper’s newsroom “was well aware of the information that was circulating widely in real time through Twitter and other social media sites including Reddit and Facebook….much of what was published in [BitchslappedByLogic's] Reddit post is not publishable in the Star, given our current journalistic standards.”
Whatever it was, most of the people who stumbled across it had probably never seen anything quite like it before. So The Grid cornered BitchslappedByLogic—who, for now, is staying behind the pseudonym—to ask, over email, how they did it, what they think about everything that’s happened since, and what it all means for where journalism’s headed.
It was Monday night, a little before midnight, when the news of what happened on Danzig Street broke. For you, what happened next?
I checked Reddit, naturally. As soon as the news broke, someone submitted a thread to /r/toronto. I followed it for a while. Eventually, someone linked to three photos via Instagram: an Instagram user had posted pictures of a massive party, and the photos showed hundreds of people standing on what appeared to be someone’s lawn. They were tagged with phrases like “HENNESSY BBQ” and “MORNINGSIDE, LAWRENCE,” which is an intersection near Danzig.
I acted on cue, realizing that most Instagram users also use Twitter. A Twitter search for “HENNESSY BBQ,” “MORNINGSIDE,” “LAWRENCE,” and variants thereof led me to an account belonging to a user named @2ToneShorty, who had posted 20 to 30 photos of Hennessy bottles, some of which had the text “hennesy bbq” and “hennesy block party” superimposed onto them. He appeared to have been promoting a Hennessy party since early July. One of his tweets claimed that the party was his. He had also tweeted that the location of the party was to be “D-Block,” a.k.a. Danzig—a street close to Morningside & Lawrence. [Nahom Tsegazab, who tweeted and used Instagram as @2ToneShorty, has since been arrested and charged with reckless discharge of a firearm.] @2ToneShorty had sent more than 50 invite tweets to other users on Twitter. I systematically reviewed the Twitter page of each person he tweeted, gathering information along the way. I repeated the process as I found more connections on other users’ pages. The rest is history.
What struck you most about what you were finding? I was really surprised at how candid everyone was—it was like they didn’t consider for a second that anyone other than their friends could find and read this.
This struck me, too. So many users I came across seemed to be using Twitter as a glorified text-message service. Users seemed either unaware of Twitter’s public nature or unconcerned with being exposed. Some users deleted posts and even accounts once they figured out they were being watched; others brazenly tweeted stuff along the lines of “I don’t care if they see my tweets.” In any case, I don’t think that ANY of them expected someone to be combing through their tweets. That is astounding to me.
Another thing that baffled me was many users’ assigning blame upon learning of being exposed. A few users had no suspicion that anyone could be watching them until friends pointed out reproductions of their tweets in the—physical, not online—Sun. The three users who were printed in the Sun ALL assumed that it was the police watching them, not a journalist or citizen. The tweeters wanted to believe, for whatever reason, that the police had obtained the tweets and handed them to reporters.
The sheer volume of information I was able to obtain was also striking. The degree to which that information contextualized the mainsteam media–reported event was almost surreal. If you were watching CP24 from around 11 p.m. through the next morning, it was the same thing over and over again: a shooting happened, here is a reporter telling you that a shooting happened, now here is Bill Blair telling you that a shooting happened. Nothing more. Then we were privileged enough to have Rob Ford assure us that this was an “isolated incident.”
The problem there was that the information revealed in the Twittersphere directly contradicted Ford’s statement. We gathered tweets sent just hours before the party expressing concern about potential violence at it. We watched in real-time as users prayed via Twitter for a peaceful, fun time. We collected tweets from users who apparently live in the neighborhood saying stuff about putting bodies in garbage bags if anything “happened” at the party. We found rap songs by these same people whose lyrics revolved around shooting people, carrying illegal guns, and dealing drugs. Post-shooting, we saw tweets indicating that residents felt like victims of systemic oppression and marginalization. Some users tweeted that government officials don’t care about the black community, and indeed never have. Another user tweeted that a hospital wouldn’t let him pay respects to his dead sister because of “racism.”
The tweets made it obvious that the shooting was far from an isolated incident, that the residents in this community lived, and continue to live, in fear of violence. It is a daily concern for them. They seem to feel left out of public discourse entirely, thrown aside to deal with their own problems. In short, the tweets revealed a context in which we could situate the shooting, a context that Rob Ford completely denied the existence of in his official statement. This calls into question the value of “breaking news”–style mainstream media reports, the bulk of which are made up of official statements and press conferences.
It seems that many journalists and officials subscribe to the Lippmann model: the public is stupid and needs to be put into its place. Mainstream media coverage of this event implies a belief that the public does not deserve accurate information, and the public will accept whatever information institutionally legitimized figures feed to them. This is a huge problem that journalism needs to address quickly, because we live in an age where information is easy to obtain. It is no longer the case that comforting platitudes are good enough simply because they are spoken by police chiefs or mayors.
I’m not sure I agree—the reporting I saw in print media, at least, had lots in the way of on-the-ground work, both immediately after the shooting and in the days since. And the reason broadcast media keeps repeating what it deems to be the most relevant information over and over again is because that’s how the medium works; if someone tunes in to 680News at 1:34 a.m., you’ve got to give them the basics of what’s happened pretty soon thereafter, and the basics are going to include what the mayor said and what the police chief did. And then there’s this: information might be easy to obtain, but accurate information still isn’t. The mass media is itself an “institutionally legitimized figure,” and I think it’s in part for that reason. There’s a reason that the Toronto Police Twitter account had to clarify that night, in all-caps, that the little kid who was shot didn’t die, and it wasn’t because of any mainstream media reporting.
You raise good points. I will say this: a medium gives rise to a certain context around it; it shapes how we think and interact with each other. What we expect to know, how we come to know it, and the value of what we know are different now from what they were just 20 years ago. So I don’t think relying on broadcast and print media alone is useful anymore.
In reaction to my post, some people said stuff like, “great, it’s unverified, who cares,” or “this is how rumors get started.” The implication being that the tweets were completely useless, or possibly worse than useless. These people were unwilling to even consider the potentially high value of the info uncovered on Reddit. Not verified, not legitimate, not “journalism”? End of story—ignore it. That’s a bad attitude to have in this day and age. Easy-to-obtain information is not useless, as we’ve seen. I think we need to legitimize information gathered from “easy” sources and allow them a place in official discourse. I’m not saying banish current forms of mainstream media—I’m just saying, as I did in my post, that they are inadequate.
You mentioned the police tweeting about the wounded infant. That is not an example of how Twitter-as-news-source can be dangerous or chaos-causing; it’s a shining example of Twitter’s potential usefulness during crises. It was one of the only examples over the course of the event where the police actually said something useful. There is no reason that the police service shouldn’t be involved in the conversation on Twitter. It’s a legitimate forum for public discourse.
I did see and do see a lot of journalists on social media who know what they’re doing, and who were using it in the wake of a shootings as a way to do what we’d think of as traditional journalism work: tweeting at people for an interview, rather than calling them or walking up to them in the street, for instance. I’d be shocked if some of the important stories that came out in the following days, especially in places like the Star (which I guess I should mention here is owned by the same owners as The Grid), didn’t owe something to a reporter tweeting at someone.
This is true, and is not a bad thing. We’ll see what comes of it. But again, these journalists are using social media as an extension of what they’ve always done. That’s entirely different from using social media to report in a new way. The format of my post obviously resonated with a ton of people, and is an indication of what people want to see from breaking news coverage.
Throughout all of this, including for this interview, you’re staying anonymous. How come?
Obviously, it’s still a tense situation. Nothing has been resolved, and there are a lot of angry and emotional people running around. Some folks on Twitter have explicitly expressed a desire for revenge. Frankly, I don’t want to be a part of that. One benefit traditional journalists have is institutional protection. It is unlikely that a gunman will show up at the Star seeking retribution for having been exposed, because the Star is part of a power structure that dwarfs any individual’s capabilities for stealth violence. As an individual, I don’t have such implicit protection.
Further, my post has had a much wider impact that I’d ever imagined it would. I’m still trying to come to terms with that. When I decided to document my findings, I did not anticipate the thread blowing up on a national scale. I am, quite frankly, a bit freaked out. So staying low-key seems like a good idea, for now. I may feel better once I make sense of this event and its implications.
Could the lack of institutional protection also be one of the big downsides to whatever we want to call what you did, for another reason? If you got something big wrong, the stakes are a lot lower than if the Star or National Post did, since the expectations of accuracy are different, since we can’t hold you accountable as an individual because we don’t know your name, and because even if we could and did, you don’t work for a larger organization that is accountable on top of all of that? If a criminal can’t come and kill you (which is good!), isn’t the flipside of that that you can’t be made to answer to the public, either?
Yes, these are both problems. I can’t really comment on how real-time Twitter reporting could be institutionalized. The individual who reports in this still leaves herself in a vulnerable position, for the time being.
I’ve seen some people herald what you did as the future of journalism, but to me, it felt old-school: you quickly collected a bunch of relevant information and tied it all together. One difference was that what you were reporting on (people’s tweets) was new, as was how you reported on them (a comment on a post on Reddit). The other difference was that you turned what you found loose once you discovered it, rather than making absolutely sure that, say, the person who everyone was tweeting about being dead actually was. You never pretended that it was anything other than what you thought was true or what seemed to be true, and a few days later, it looks like you did get pretty much everything right. But do you think there’s some risk to missing that extra step?
What I did was totally old-fashioned; it’s called research. Yes, I used a non-traditional source, but it’s a source comprised of publicly available information, just like a book in a library. There is no reason to consider tweets an inferior source of information, because people communicate via social media just like they do via text or phone. A person’s capacity for lying on Twitter is equal to her capacity for lying on the phone, all things equal. So why not analyze tweets as we do telephone conversations?
Let me reiterate what I stated from the get-go in my post, though: I was painting a random portrait, not communicating verified facts. It is true that many Redditors took the information in the tweets I relayed at face value, but it is also true that many Redditors were skeptical of it. If you look through the comments, there are numerous instances of posters challenging news conveyed in various tweets, especially with respect to Shyanne Charles’s death. A lot of the tweets turned out to map accurately onto how events actually went down, and we only know that because people attempted to verify the information presented. Journalists played no small part in confirming what did and did not happen, for sure. That is a role I think the profession should focus on in the future—verification.
There are certainly risks associated with presenting unverified information in the context of a major crime event. This is an ethical issue I’m struggling with myself. I can think of a few different ways a determined criminal could exploit Twitter to her own advantage. I won’t elaborate, but I’m sure any PR guru could flesh out the point. There is also the potential for innocent posters who are ignorant of Twitter’s public nature getting into trouble because of things they’ve tweeted, either with the law or with the street justice system.
It’s possible that people who tweet things relating to specific people in the context of criminal events may be put in danger. For example, say person X shoots at a person, and user Y, who knows about it, tweets something seemingly innocuous like “OMG X SO CRAZY.” Out of context, “OMG X SO CRAZY” means nothing. But if word gets out that X shot at a person, it may all of a sudden look like Y somehow “snitched.” This leaves Y in a potentially vulnerable situation. Is exposing Y’s tweet worth it in this situation? Well, the potential upside is that people learn not to withhold information about crimes from the official frameworks we’ve constructed to deal with criminals. If Y had reported X’s act to the police rather than tweet, the community would be better off. Further, if others become aware that Y tweeted “OMG X SO CRAZY” while knowing that X committed a crime, it appears to onlookers that not reporting crimes is an acceptable course of action in a community. That’s detrimental to everyone, I think. The big ethical question is whether the potential benefit to the community of discouraging a culture of violence outweighs the potential danger to Y’s person.
All of that considered, then, do you think you did the right thing?
I’m still not sure. I think that a meaningful public dialogue about the issue would be fruitful. It would help me to think through the implications, and help us all figure out where to go from here.