Dissecting disaster – Social media’s role in the Boston Marathon tragedy

At 2:50pm on Monday April 15th, two blasts, 12 seconds apart, rocked the spectator packed finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. Within minutes the world was alerted to the tragic events via the ever expanding net of social media that circumnavigates the globe. When events of this magnitude take place, the power of Twitter, in particular, is highlighted – but, as clichéd as it may sound, with that power comes a great responsibility, something that can often get lost in the panic.

On the third Monday of April every year the city of Boston comes together for Patriots’ Day, friends and family celebrate a day off work, share a drink and perhaps head down town to watch the marathon – one of the largest sporting events on the city’s calendar. Marathon Monday is a yearly highlight for every Bostonian. Tragically, it seems that day will never quite be the same again.

As the explosions rocked Boylston Street, killing three people and injuring over 150 more, Twitter became a maelstrom of rumour. Journalists use Twitter to help build a portfolio of information, hoping that they can piece together fact over conjecture. No matter how much care is taken though, incorrect information often slips through in the confusion. However, some feeds, notably The New York Post, part of the tabloid press in America, chose not to screen what they were placing in the public sphere. For example, they were quick to tweet that 12 people had been killed and then later that a badly burned Saudi suspect had been detained. Both of these were based on unnamed sources and were subsequently proved to be unfounded – this didn’t stop those tweets from being countlessly retweeted, with many people taking them as fact.

Soon tweets were circulating about other suspect packages, other potential targets, more potential suspects. Once snippets of information like this find their way in to the public consciousness the retweet snowball effect can quickly build a sense of panic, over shadowing the actual facts and making it harder for those not in the area to grasp what is actually happening. In times like this, Twitter all too often becomes a potentially dangerous game of Chinese whispers.

Happily on the other side of that coin, social media does, if you can find it, contain real time reporting on the genuine events that are unfolding. The official Twitter feeds of the Boston Police Department and The Boston Globe, as two examples, were trying their hardest to separate the facts from the specualtion, providing updates that were incredibly important to anyone looking for information. It’s this responsible and methodical use of social media that should be applauded, and it’s their approach that underlines its importance.

Away from the reporting of events, social media illustrated how vital it is for those caught up in the panic, either directly or indirectly. Sites like Facebook or Instagram provided ways for people to show that they were safe – with status updates or pictures being ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ quickly amongst friends and relatives. For those who hadn’t received such reassurance specific Facebook pages were set up for people to leave any information they might have, whilst The Red Cross’s Safe and Well site allowed people to post updates on their situation. Google also activated their Person Finder tool, allowing anyone to search for online updates based on the name of the loved one they’re looking for. This security blanket of social interaction makes passing on vital information much quicker than passing on information via mobile phones or via text message (often not getting through due to over use on the networks).

The chaotic and tragic scenes in Boston on Monday underlined the confusing and potentially damaging nature of social media in the face of a disastrous event, whilst also proving that as a tool for providing information and reassurance for friends, relatives and those caught up in the disaster it has become vitally important.

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