Social Media in a Time of Crisis

In times of crisis, increasing amounts of people worldwide utilize social media as an outlet. Social media gives millions of users real-time access to information, helps them communicate with loved ones, and keeps them as informed as possible.  However, it can also evoke widespread fear.  With such quick access to information, media outlets have less time to confirm critical facts and consider the consequences of widespread distribution.  In this blog post, I highlight social media sentiment in response to the Boston Marathon massacre, in which it played a critical role.

News breaks. Authorities and first responders used Twitter to relay real-time updates. The Boston police department confirmed the explosion in a tweet at 3:39 p.m. ET and continued to send information via tweets throughout the day. People in the area reported losing mobile service after the explosions. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent a tweet telling people to try to use text messaging instead. Twitter users retweet AP, Boston Globe, CNN and other trusted sources. News quickly became viral.

Next, details start to leak. Runners post bloody, graphic images of Boston Marathon injuries. Similarly, runners also post video on Vine to show action shots of the blast. At this point, do a simple hash tag search of #Boston and you can find all of the information you need, in real time, on Twitter.

In response to the horrific images and video capturing the event, people around the world expressed their emotions. Most sentiment included shock and sorrow, sending prayers and love to everyone at the marathon. Others shared information on how to help and donate blood.

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On the flip side, people also used Facebook and Twitter as a way to vent feelings of anger. Runners expressed horror and fear. Others shamed news outlets for posting such gruesome photos of the event.

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After emotional reactions were expressed, people began to ask: “who is responsible?” We want justice. We want closure.

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But it’s not enough. A Saudi national was brought in for questioning. The New York Post reported that the man’s apartment was searched. However, it’s unclear as to what, if anything was found. Was this to calm the public? Some called bullshit and accused authorities of racial profiling. Today, the Saudi national was cleared of suspicion, according to Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

Furthermore, the demand for instant gratification and by-the-second updated news on Twitter is creating an unsettling margin of error in reporting. Since the time of the incident, many unconfirmed reports are being treated as gospel. What’s worse? Confusion abounds this afternoon around the Boston Marathon bombing case after multiple news outlets reported that a suspect was identified and either taken into custody or arrested.

According to New York Magazine: The Associated Press said a person was “in custody, expected in federal court,” while CNN and Fox News reported that an arrest was made, based on video images of the bombing site. NBC and CBS both reported that no arrest has been made, and CNN has since softened its once-definitive reporting. “Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack,” the Boston Police Department said.

Reporting on breaking tragedies is about much more than simply informing the world what’s going on. It’s about helping people in dire need. That’s where Google’s Person Finder comes in, a project that lets people search for or provide information on those involved in a tragedy. Hence, it proved to be a remarkable tool in helping runners find loved ones.

Similarly, The Boston Globe created a Google form where Boston residents could offer their home to people from out of town who need a place to stay. Runkeeper and TIME helped Bostonians find places to donate blood.

Tell us: Do you think social media has been a savior in a time of crisis? Or are there too many inconsistencies in Tweets coming from the worlds most trusted news sources? Your opinions on this matter are highly valued. We highly encourage your comments below. 

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