Documentary - The Thread

Kevin Cheetham


Susan Omand is awe-struck by the power of social media as she watches the documentary The Thread...


To be honest, The Thread could have been made about any major event these days – it just happens to be about the Boston Marathon Bombing.

The film documents the week of media coverage following the bombing and opens on a college student, Kevin Cheetham, walking down a Boston street at night. A tweet of his is quoted, “I was at the race when the bombs went off. A block from the first explosion and a half block from the second. I’m OK. Still shaken though.”

Flashback, the date is April 15th 2013 and a montage of media comes up on the screen. A headline about the IRS, Bieber using Anne Frank to further his own publicity, Psi and Gangnam style, the start of the Boston Marathon, a story about Jay-Z, a cute cat video, the Bus-stop dancing queen, the Boston Marathon Winner, Tweets about the marathon, another cute cat video, a runner’s personal video of her finishing the marathon, the first explosion...

Cut to Baton Rouge in Louisiana and an interview with Anthony Reed, a Sociology PhD majoring in Criminology who had a friend of a friend in Boston and got a tweet about the Marathon bombing as soon as it happened. The first thing he did was go to Reddit and start a thread as a way to track and file updates. Within minutes there were hundreds of messages, both from people looking for information and people on the ground at the scene posting photos and videos. Others started using it as a way to track loved ones and others used it to post useful websites and information, including a website that showed runners’ finishing times so that people could check if runners they knew had finished and were OK. Major news feeds started to pick up on the thread as it gathered and disseminated information from multiple sources. In all 3 million people read or contributed to it.

One of these news sources was Buzzfeed and Gavon Laessig, the Breaking News Editor, and Jessica Testa, a reporter, give their view of the story in that they knew that people wanted news fast and constant rather than waiting for complete stories so they tapped into the social media “buzz” of Twitter and Reddit to give as much coverage as possible. As Anthony Reed states in the documentary, the good thing about Reddit is the ability to compare different news sources with information from people actually at the event, leading to a truer picture of events.

Robert Mackey

Another interview is Robert Mackey of the New York Times who spoke about how their website The Lede reported on the bombings, using information gained through the Reddit site. One particularly telling comment was that he felt the 9/11 attacks would have been “unbearable to watch” with the current level of technology and thousands of people sharing pictures, video, even live streaming events from their own very personal perspective as events played out.

As the week progresses, the focus shifts from the wellbeing of victims to finding the perpetrators. Chris Rynes, a student at State College, Pennsylvania is interviewed as being one of the people invited to moderate the sub-Reddit thread that was set up called r/findBostonBombers. He realised the responsibility he had been given and set about writing “rules” for the thread, the most important of which, he said, was “Keep in mind that the ‘suspects’ being discussed are in all likelihood innocent people and should be treated as innocent until they are proven guilty.” The escalation is sudden and unexpected from all angles. Someone gets named on the thread, it is not picked up in the moderating and that person instantly becomes a prime suspect, the information and his picture goes viral across the web and he is completely vilified, later to be proven innocent. The founder of Reddit, Erik Martin, is called to account on a panel about social media by the editor in chief of Slate Group, for not verifying and fact checking the content of the threads on the Reddit site. The week culminates in a shoot out witnessed at the time by Kevin Cheetham, the student we saw at the start. He reports the whole thing on a Reddit thread.

Wow. This documentary is a must watch for anybody who uses social media as a way to get, gather or distribute news. Well filmed and well balanced with no leading questions, it does not seek to give an opinion in and of itself but presents the story of how the media coverage unfolded from multiple viewpoints and allows the viewer to make their own mind up. To me, it showed both the good and the bad in the internet – the good, that people are willing to help others no matter though they know them or not and having a lot of information out there in the immediate aftermath of an event or crisis is much more helpful to people on the ground than a few belated full-blown news stories. The bad is how quickly social media can cause conjecture, theory and speculation to become “fact” and that, no matter how hard anyone tries, it cannot be moderated. There used to be a saying “I read it in the paper so it must be true” and the scary thing is that a lot of people now believe that of the internet. If they see anything in writing, no matter where it came from or who said it, they take it to be true. To be a fact. And not only that, they ACT upon what they read as if it is true.

The main thing then that this documentary brought home to me is the HUGE responsibility we have both as readers and writers on the internet to CHECK AND CORROBORATE what we read and what we think we know before we act upon it, pass it on, or form an opinion using it as a basis. With the massive assault on our senses from data from a huge variety of sources, it is all too easy to get swallowed up and become another cog in a massive rumour mill, whether deliberately or accidentally. Yes, having a lot of data can be a very useful thing and having more and better information provides a fuller and rounder picture BUT all it takes is one slip, one “I should have caught that,” as sub-Reddit moderator Chris Rynes stated, for something to get away from you, go viral and become “fact”. As bloggers or web journalists we must shoulder even more responsibility for fact checking because we can be seen as a source of information and, as was shown in the documentary, if you are associated in any way with a “reliable” source, whatever you say and however you say it, even on your own personal feed, can have unforeseen consequences.

Web 2.0 and the connectivity that it provides is a double edged sword. Unfortunately for some it is the Sword of Damocles.

Images - Sicily Publicity.