Reacting in Real Time: Social Media and the Boston Marathon Bombings

By Matter

Anyone who has turned on a television, radio, or computer in the last few weeks is painfully aware of the tragedy that occurred at this year’s Boston Marathon. Those of us who spend significant amounts of our days trolling the web, checking social media, and are rarely found without a screen in our face, have been inundated with news stories since the minute the attack happened…on live television. The fact that millions of people were already tuned in to watch the attack take place certainly fueled the near instantaneous surge of social media buzz. People ran to their computers and smartphones to update their Facebook statuses and tweet their thoughts and prayers. The pervasive trends in sentiment were shock, fear and sadness.

As the afternoon hours seemed to crawl by, especially for residents of the Boston area, people remained glued to their TVs, computers and mobile devices, watching anxiously for updates. Would there be another attack? Are there any immediate leads on who was responsible? What was the extent of the damage? All of these questions continued to hang in the Boston air, unanswered, as the city was forced to resume a sort of automated return to normalcy the following day. Citizens of Boston gingerly went about their everyday lives until the chaos erupted once more early Friday morning. Essentially the entire city of Boston was on lock-down for more than 12 hours. Thankfully, the crisis was resolved that same evening, and the healing process could begin. Throughout the 5 days representing the core of the Boston Marathon mayhem, social media was continuously ablaze. Now that the drama surrounding the incident has simmered down, I want to take a brief look back at the effect social media had on the situation while we were in the midst of it all.

The Boston Marathon incident was the first of its kind, in relation to media. The world is connected like never before, with countless outlets and sources of news information spewing off tweets, posts and blogs almost nonstop. Social media was ever-present starting the moment the first bomb exploded, but did this presence create positive or negative influence? The sentiment of the online world is a mixed bag, but the answer is both.

Social media allows for near instantaneous reactions to events to be communicated to millions of people. In the case of the Boston Marathon, several institutions utilized Twitter to reach as many people as they could as fast as possible with critical information. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Association issued a tweet telling people trying to reach friends or family in Boston to text instead of calling, as many were experiencing blocks on incoming and outgoing calls, and texting used less bandwidth. Tufts Medical Center and the Red Cross coordinated emergency response efforts via Twitter, directing where patients in need of care should enter the hospital, and providing locations where those uninjured could donate blood.

Social media also provided a sense of security. People could stay on top of breaking news without sitting immobile in front of their television screens. If anything new happened or an important update needed to be shared, the general public could be notified right away by checking social media outlets such as the Boston Police Department twitter handle. On Thursday, April 18th, when the F.B.I. released photos of the two suspects, the information was instantly in the hands of millions as the government implored the public for its help in the identification process. In seconds, the suspects’ faces were recognizable across the country. Their own social media footprints were easily traced, providing additional support in tracking them down. Lastly, social media did play a significant role in bringing in donations. Constant updates, posts and picture sharing made the attack very “in your face”— pushing people to respond to their emotions and give support to the cause.

Now here’s a good transition to the negative effects. The fact that viral photos of the injured and deceased made people feel bad and want to contribute to the relief fund isn’t anyone’s fault. However, when companies used the tragedy to take advantage of people’s emotions and boost their own social media numbers, they cross a line in my book. For example, NBC Bay Area posted a picture of a child recovering in the hospital, asking people to “Like” the photo and wish him a speedy recovery. That is literally guilt-tripping people into clicking a button and increasing activity on NBC’s Facebook page, and does nothing to actually help the poor kid recover. Ford issued its heartfelt appreciation to the law enforcement involved, but incorporated this thank you into an advertisement. It would have appeared far more sincere to post it as a stand-alone thank you. This is certainly an example of less outright manipulation, but is still ethically debatable. 

The other large issue was the spread of misinformation that occurred across social media channels. We already know how news spreads like wildfire on social media, but unfortunately there is no way to prevent this spread when the information is wrong. Before the suspects were officially identified, the New York Post issued a cover page falsely stating that the F.B.I. was looking for the two innocent individuals in the photo. The New York Post was not the only media outlet that failed the general public. CNN falsely reported on Wednesday, April 17th that authorities had arrested a Boston Marathon bombing suspect. The release of this news prompted AP and Fox to follow suit, convincing huge numbers of people that a bomber had indeed been taken into custody. Of course, the situation was hastily rectified, but the damage of this erroneous report was hard for the people of Boston to take, and is thought to have contributed to several other incidents that day including a bomb threat and subsequent evacuation at the South Boston Court House.

Retrospectively, social media was responsible for more good than harm, but the situation has still left a lot of people, including myself, more skeptical of news they see on social media platforms. The matter at hand isn’t whether or not you should use social media for news, because in our day and age you really have no choice, and it has the capability to do so much good. The issue comes down to how you use it, and ensuring you are careful and smart when it comes to the information you read. Before spreading news on your own pages, make sure you confirm the story with multiple platforms, and remember that while social media is an incredible tool that keeps our world connected, the age-old saying of “don’t believe everything you read” may still apply. Perhaps we can even mold it into a new, age-appropriate saying: Think before you re-tweet.