I thought that I understood the power of social media, but I was wrong. In the wake of the bombings that occurred at the Boston Marathon last Monday, social media proved to be one of the greatest assets to our modern world. Up until this point, I hadn’t realized the potential that social media had to also put lives in danger. In this blog, I’ll examine a few examples of how social media negatively impacted the events that occurred last Monday and throughout the week following. Hopefully this will provide some insight into the benefits and detriments of social media that came to my attention as a result of this tragedy, but that are also important to consider going forward as business professionals.

The misidentification of missing Brown University student as bombing suspect

  • What happened: After images of the bombing suspects were released on Thursday night, crowdsourcing began immediately. Kami Mattioli, a student at Temple University, thought she recognized one of the men pictured as Sunil Tripathi, a former high school classmate and current missing student from Brown University, and took to Twitter to express her concern. Reddit users immediately flagged her tweets and took to the forum website to discuss. Boston Police “supposedly” mentioned Tripathi’s name on the police scanner; Hartford, Connecticut CBS News affiliate Kevin Michael identified Sunil as a suspect in a tweet from his personal Twitter account which was then picked up by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, Digg’s Ross Newman, Politico’s Dylan Byers, and Newsweek’s Brian Ries; and @YourAnonNews tweeted this same information, garnering more than 3,000 RTs and creating even more of a public concern. 
  • Why this matters: It took until mid-day Friday for my friends and I to understand that Sunil Tripathi had absolutely nothing to do with the Marathon bombings. With so much information being released and shared via various social media platforms, it is very easy for valid information to get muddled by uninformed accusations such as was made on Kami’s Twitter account. Although Kami expressed a legitimate concern that was not malicious in nature, her suspicion was directed toward the wrong audience. Kami should have gone directly to the police, as the Internet community is not a mature enough audience to filter out the truth from all the lies. This accusation from a seemingly unimportant character in our story and the “information cascade” that resulted was enough to get Boston Police to believe that Tripathi might have something to do with the attacks, and enough to get the general public posting maliciously on the Tripathi’s family Facebook page. Let’s keep in mind that the Tripathi family has had a missing son for about a month, now.
  • What we can learn from this: We all want to be the first to possess and release new and relevant information. It is imperative, as professionals, to understand the importance of our words, how many people they can reach, and the potential that they have to affect people’s lives. Therefore, we must emphasize the importance of being right, not first. As consumers, we must also understand the importance of recognizing authorities on a subject. In an article written by Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic, Madrigal writes, “In the aftermath, I kept coming back to the moment when the fevered detective work of a subreddit broke out into a national story within minutes. Where had that authority come from? How had so many people bought in so fast?” And she has a great point. Who had the authority to declare innocent Sunil Tripathi a terrorist and why had so many people believed it? We must all be cautious of the information we choose to believe that is delivered to us through the Internet, and also attentive to the accuracy and validity of the information that we choose to broadcast to our following. Within an instant, one can lose credibility.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • What happened: In an article on the Atlantic Wire, author Rebecca Greenfield talks abou the plethora of images and footage from the Marathon bombings and how they are a recipe for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Greenfield recalls a study that “she completed … on the lasting mental and physical effects of exposure to graphic images following 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War. The study found that people who watched more than four hours of TV coverage a day in the weeks immediately after both events went on to report PTSD symptoms and, after 9/11, more physical ailments than those that didn’t.” With the advent of social media and its serving as an “unfiltered chronicle of the most distressing imagery,” it has become even more of an issue today. 
  • Why this matters: We must decide as a society whether or not the perpetuation of the emotions related to the tragic events that happened on Marathon Monday, as a result of the circulation of graphic images and footage of the event, is the best way for us to cope. People have almost no control over the nature of the images and footage that is broadcast to them, whether it is on television, in tweets or Vine videos, Instagram or Facebook photos, or albums of pictures that are compiled by online news sources. As Whitney Erin Boesel put it,”Gone are the days when one had to watch an hour of TV news to see the same tragic explosion replay six times; gone, too, are the more recent days when seeing the same tragic explosion six times meant clicking “replay” five times on YouTube. Seeing this explosion six times takes only a single link click, and less than a minute of one’s time; in an hour, one could watch this explosion happen not just six times, but 600 times.”
  • What we can learn from this: In my opinion, if you are feeling stressed or squeamish, choose not to look through photo albums showing the aftermath of a tragedy such as the Boston Marathon bombings. I believe that those who broadcast graphic images and footage should, however, alert viewers that what they are about to see may be graphic. In that way they might be able to prevent viewers from seeing what might cause them emotional distress. I think there may be a bigger issue, however, in what is shown on broadcast television. Often viewers are not warned about the graphic nature of material that is shown on air and cannot avoid seeing images that may trigger negative responses. Again, it is important to understand the scope of the audience that you are providing information to. It is not necessary to censor the information that you release, but, rather, it is important that you are sensitive to the emotional stability of your audience and that you are wary of the unpredictable nature of their response. It is also important to be ready and able to address complaints from your audience in a respectful manner, as well as be prompt in the amelioration of mistakes.

Drawing Connections and Making Assumptions:

  • What happened: After the two bombing suspects were identified, people took to the Internet to get more information about the brothers – scouring social media websites for their personal pages and digging up their pasts in order to understand the present. And that’s just the issue. Although some leads that turned up went hand-in-hand with the identification of these brothers as terrorists such as activity on one of the brothers’ YouTube page, the public tried too hard to align any information they found on the Internet with the nature of the events that took place in order to make sense of the situation. One of the strangest connections that I saw was between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and hip-hop music as a result of numerous song quotes found on his personal Twitter page. Sources report that Tamerlan was a member of a hip-hop website called real-hiphop.com, which posts pictures and information about hip-hop music. Somehow, a link between hip-hop music and terrorism was made, and hip-hop artist T.I. spoke out about the subject saying that he isn’t pleased that his pictures were used on this website and that he has no connection to it. He also “expressed anger over the fact that hip-hop is being associated with this tragedy.” T.I. was quoted, saying, “Hip-hop narrates the activity and conditions of our culture. It doesn’t create them. Hip-hop ain’t never been about hurting innocent people.” 
  • Why this matters: In my mind, it is justified to desire to make sense of an event such as the Boston Marathon bombings by trying to put together pieces of the bombers’ pasts in order to possibly understand their motives. However, it is necessary to recognize that although these men are now considered terrorists and they did something that is unforgivable, we must also consider that they are human, like us. It is important that we understand that not every detail of these men’s lives correlate with their actions. To put it simply, T.I. shouldn’t need to defend hip-hop. A smart person knows that you can enjoy hip-hop or produce hip-hop music and not be a terrorist. It is ignorant to make assumptions and create connections such as these where none exist.
  • What we can learn from this: The lesson here is very simple. Do not create connections where none exist, and going back to the first bulletpoint, strive to be right, not first. It would be foolish to make an uninformed accusation or assumption and lose your credibility. It is imperative to thoroughly scrutinize everything that is published to a public social media account in order to prevent the spread of messages that harm your reliability as a source.

These are just a few examples of ways that social media had a negative effect following the tragedy that occurred last Monday. Social media also facilitated the broadcast of police locations that could have allowed the 2nd suspect to stay one step ahead of the police and increased the amount of time that the city of Boston sat on edge, throughout the length of the manhunt. Another difficulty with social media is that it forced broadcast journalists to function at a pace that they weren’t prepared to handle. This resulted in false information being broadcast across usually credible networks and spread to people across the globe who were seeking information. These type of errors are difficult to recover from. In the case of any emergency, we are always told to remain calm. This goes for broadcast journalists and those running the social media accounts of news networks, too – in order to bring about the best quality of information, we have to reamin calm when others report information faster than us, and be cautious when choosing to post information, making sure to fact check to confirm that your sources are reliable and so that, in turn, you will be considered a reliable source as well.

For all of the negatives that I just mentioned, there was an equal amount of positives that came out of the use of social media in the wake of this tragedy. Social media allowed us to crowdsource details about the bombing suspects and create and spread a Google Doc containing a running list of people who were ready and willing to host anyone affected by the bombings who could not return home. Social media also allowed us to share our support and affection for those who were affected by the tragedy, and to contact our loved ones when the cell service was down. It helped Boston College students to band together and create an event called “The Last 5” in which students were to walk the last 5 miles of the marathon to honor those who were affected by the bombings, and to inspire a whole  lot of school pride.

Looking back on the event, it is crazy to imagine how differently it would have evolved had social media not have been in the picture. In fact, it is difficult to imagine daily life without the use of social media, or even broadcast journalism. We live in a fast-paced world, and sometimes it is difficult to keep up, but it is of utmost importance that you remain calm and thus credible in serious situations such as the Boston Marathon bombings, as well as in every day life. No one can argue with accurate information, even if it comes a minute late.