Imagine that a mass shooting is happening. What should you do? Well, if you’re in danger, you should probably find safety. And if you’re safe, there’s a good chance that you should wait until the next day to learn more about what the shooting because of how much misinformation is involved with a major story such as this. But, if you must follow breaking news, you might want to check Snapchat first.
Snapchat might seem like an improbable source of breaking news updates. The service is known primarily for letting people superimpose goofy stickers over their selfies and taking some of the risk out of sharing nude photographs with others (because those photos sort of disappear forever). As the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people and injured another 21 on December 2 unfolded, though, the service became a source of up-to-the-minute briefings on what was happening in neighborhoods around the targeted area.
Offering these updates required Snapchat to find publicly-posted snaps, curate them into one story, and, in some cases, use text to clarify what was happening. This gave Snapchat users an idea of what people in the area were sharing — and provided much needed background information that informed users without making it seem like Snapchat knew the entire story. It was just a simple service gathering news and making it available to the people who might benefit from seeing it.
Combine this with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s content and it seems like the service might be a good source for breaking news. It can react quickly, use content from many users, and pass along brief updates on the situation as they happen. When the situation has resolved, all that content disappears, making it less likely to contribute to the flood of misinformation that can haunt the web, while law enforcement and the journalists covering it struggle to find the truth.
It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.
Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)
I reached out to Snapchat to get their perspective on their news-aggregation. I was given a statement attributed to the company’s head of communications: “We published this story because we felt that the content, which comes from the LA Local Story, was newsworthy and held national significance” — and later told that my followup questions wouldn’t be answered. “We have nothing more to share at this time, sorry,” a spokesperson said in a rather short email. “Thanks!”
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Snapchat did something similar in the future. It’s in a unique position to offer people lightweight updates about a developing situation from the eyes of the people most affected by it. Combined with a little editorial judgment and some other features, like the one that allows Snapchat users to view similar content from other public stories, that seems like a nice setup for anyone who wants to know what’s happening in a breaking news story.
Will there be downsides? Of course. Some of Snapchat’s verbiage doesn’t mesh with what it’s showing during stories like this. (“Swipe up to Explore similar Snaps!” read a line of text shown over a photo of kids lining up to leave a locked-down school.) And there’s always the chance that the company will pass along videos or images that somehow mislead their viewers. I wouldn’t expect the company to have all the answers about important story developments, either.
But if someone is unwilling to wait for law enforcement to investigate the situation, for journalists to get to the bottom of the story, and for the frenzied masses to stop sharing whatever information comes to them, they could do worse than to check Snapchat. And even if they end up getting bad information they can at least take solace in knowing that their blunder won’t be available for anyone to see hours, days, weeks, months, or years after the truth is revealed.