In Boston, social media played a key role

By Katelyn Montero

In the aftermath of the tragedy surrounding the Boston marathon, the world saw just how much social media has changed the way the world interacts with each other. Platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Google Docs and even new platforms acted as catalysts to both the spread of information and the spread of support to those in need. However, the world also saw that misinformation can spread just as fast and just as far as valid information, and with so many voices all saying different things at once, it became near impossible to separate fact from fiction in the wake of the bombings.
Twitter allowed people following the story from all over the world to watch the news unfold in real time as news organizations updated their feeds constantly in the days following the bombings. Even organizations such as the Boston police and the FBI were incredibly active with their Twitter posts, using the platform to communicate with people inside of Boston as well as keep the rest of the nation informed.

However, the pressure to be first began to outweigh the pressure to be right, as several news organizations posted articles, tweets and statements that were later retracted due to false information. On April 17 at around 11 a.m., multiple news organizations erroneously reported that a suspect had been arrested and taken into custody. CNN, the Associated Press and Fox news all sent out tweets saying that there had been an arrest made. In reality, police and the FBI were still looking to find their suspects and no arrests had been made or were about to be made. Several hours later it was reported that law officials had narrowed in on two suspects, but it was not until 6 p.m. on April 18 that the images were released to the public.

The Washington Post recently issued an article explaining that the decision to release the images to the public was actually a response to amateur investigators who were posting their latest theories on sites like Reddit and the NY Post.

The Washington Post reported, “the social media revolution meant that the FBI and Boston authorities were under intense pressure to move even faster, because thousands of amateur sleuths were mimicking the official investigation, inspecting digital images of the crowd on Boylston Street and making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers.”

Organizations like the NY Post and Reddit became forums for self-proclaimed citizen investigators to upload pictures and videos shot from cameras and cell phones. Users all over the world were then able to look at the information and try to come away with a lead. According to the Washington Post, the FBI chose to counter these civilian investigations by releasing the photos to the public. By sharing the images with the public would not only increase the likelihood of the suspects being identified, but also dispel any alternative theories and suspects that were surfacing online.

The suspects were identified as 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and 19-year-old Dzohokhar Tsarnaev. However, law enforcement’s battle with social media was just beginning. During the manhunt that took place late in the night on April 18 through April 19, the city of Watertown, Mass. went into lockdown and asked that residents stay in their homes until police searched and cleared the area. However, photos and videos of the manhunt and the police searching the streets instantly flooded the Internet as citizens in lockdown uploaded images from their cell phones and cameras. The Boston police addressed the issue on twitter and asked that citizens not compromise officer safety by tweeting about tactical positions or anything that might tip the suspect off and allow him to escape. The tweet was shared 20,000 times by various news organizations and other followers.

Despite the problems that come with the ability to instantly upload content posed for investigations and law enforcement, social media also possesses the power to completely reinvent the way that communities handle disaster relief procedures. New technologies like the Google People Finder, which was used after the Japan earthquakes, have emerged as ways for families and friends outside of Boston to connect with their loved ones. The site had two options: to search for someone or to upload information about someone. In the chaotic times that often follow a tragedy, cell phone lines are often either down or overwhelmed and it becomes incredibly difficult for families and friends to get in touch with the people they are trying to reach. The Google People finder app provided a space for those connections to happen.

Similarly, social media became an incredible stage for acts of kindness and support toward the displaced runners of the marathon. Reddit and Google Docs became platforms in which people offered up free shelter and free food to those that needed it. On both platforms, users were able to list the number of rooms they had as well as contact information so that runners who had been locked out of their hotels for safety reasons would have a place to stay. Reddit users even offered up frequent flyer miles for people who needed to fly out of Boston to make it home in the next couple of days. News organizations such as the New York Times and USA Today reported and shared links to these platforms, transforming local efforts to national stories.

As the Boston marathon bombings have shown, social media can be both a catalyst for information or start a wildfire of misinformation, however one thing is certain: that social media is here to stay.