Social Media Use in the Wake of Tragedies

IMG_0530It was the day after Christmas; I had just signed up to Twitter and was still getting used to looking at the news feed when this tweet appeared in my news feed. The first though that popped into my head was, “Has it already been 10 years?” At the time of the tsunami, Facebook was still being developed and would not be available for general public use until 2006, Twitter was still a concept that would not be fully developed for another year and a half, Instagram was still another six years away, and the first generation of the iPhone would not be released until 2007. We relied on traditional media outlets for information and pictures from the Indian Ocean tsunami, and it took some time to get actual footage of the devastation. There were not many images of the devastation taking place and the ones that were available were looped over and over by multiple media outlets.

My attention then quickly turned to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. It helped that the disaster occurred in a major US city during a major event but times were different. Hundreds of people had cell phones that were capable of taking pictures and videos and then able to instantly upload these images to Facebook and Twitter. Both major media outlets and locals were tweeting about the explosions and in no time at all pictures of the devastation were being seen all over the internet. Law enforcement and others were using Twitter to keep people apprised of the situation and away from the bombing site. In the hours and days that followed, Twitter was used by law enforcement to ask for help in finding the suspects and to announce to all that the suspect had been captured.

Not only was the spread of information more rapid in the bombings as compared to the tsunami but so was the response by the general public. After the tsunami occurred there were governmental and private industry aid and there were concerts and fundraisers, which gave the general public an opportunity to make a contribution but not in the same scale as after the bombings. Since Twitter did not exist, we did not see #tsunamirelief or #supporttsumaniaid, thus we were not given the opportunity to retweet and make a donation to relief efforts. Instead we had to make sure that we were watching the right channel at the right time to write down the phone number or website to make a donation.

Nine short years later another disaster strikes, but this time social media has been invented and worldwide people are seeing #prayforboston, #bostonmarathon, and #bostonstrong. Response is almost immediate, and in no time at all the ability to make a donation becomes as simple as retweeting. Celebrities and the general public were able to show their support for the victims with just a few clicks of the mouse. Just like the tsunami there were benefit fundraisers, concerts, and crowdfunding sites generated over $2 million in pledges.

While social media played a significant role in the disemination of information in the days and months following the Boston Marathon bombing, it was also not without its shortcomings. Numerous errorous tweets were sent out in the hours following the bombing. False tweets indicated that a bombing suspect had been apprehended, an incorrect identity of a suspect, and that there had been additional bombs located at sights such as the JFK Library. Additionaly, in the days after the bombing, several fake fundrasing sites or Twitter profiles, such as this one,fake-twitter-screenshot appeared on Twitter and collected thousands of dollars before they were shutdown. Many people belived that they were giving money to help aid the bombing victims only to find out it was just another scam. Fortunately, the number of good people outweighed the bad, and Twitter users policed the tweets and directed people to the correct usernames.

Before the bombing, Twitter had only been sparingly used by authorities to diseminate information to the public and as a means to raise money. The Boston Marathon bombing redefined how authorities would use social media, especially Twitter, to communicate with the public. Twitter is slowly becoming the place to go during and immeadiately after a major situation occurs. Fundraisers are easily set up, and it is a forum to show long-distance support. There will always be people who spread misinformation and will try to take advantage of other’s goodwill, but they will be outnumbered. The truth will come through. Would the reporting and the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami have been different had social media been at the forefront of society? Most likely. How will social media evolve in the next 10 years? I am not sure, but for now it is cementing its place in our society as the go-to spot for breaking news and information.

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