Australian in Boston bombing checks in via Twitter

  • Australians confirm safety over social media
  • Boston as seen through Twitter
  • Social media in a tragedy: good or bad?

Amongst fears for the safety of Australians in Boston over the past week, Twitter and other social media has proved a huge tool in reconnecting families, friends, and concerned government officials.

An Australian runner in the Boston Marathon, Emma Cameron, had people concerned for her in the recent bombing tragedy until the official Indigenous Marathon twitter confirmed her safety. Another Australian runner, Mandy Barlow, was informed of the explosions via text message from her son and told in a message from him to “[g]et the hell out of there”.

A few days later, when an armed man began shooting on Boston’s MIT campus, news spread virally over Twitter, warning students and residents to stay inside, before any major news outlets picked it up, either online or on the radio. For many, this was initially frustrating, with Twitter giving out warnings and no real information behind them, but it may very well have saved lives as people stayed inside, aware that danger was out there if not sure exactly what it entailed. By the time news outlets were reporting on the situation, most residents and students within the MIT area already knew that they should be staying inside.

This latest major international tragedy is yet another illustration of how social media is picking up the task of both spreading news and reconnecting families. In the chaos of an event like this, whether it be a bombing or a natural disaster, everyday people are using their smartphones to become journalists and reassure their family and friends of their safety.

The mundanity of a Facebook update on someone’s breakfast may now be prefaced by an international traveller’s assurance that they are safe when in and around an incident. And WiFi access during a time of clogged networks becomes incredibly attractive, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, when New Yorkers crowded around the only Starbucks in the city that still had operating WiFi.

One student from Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, Andrew Bauer, took notice of the Boston Marathon in particular as a clear showcase of how social media and news can interact in a very important and timely way. He and his team compiled the many thousands of tweets that had been made in the hours during and after the marathon tagged with the hashtag #BostonMarathon and narrowed them down via location to find the people actually in the areas of Boston most affected by the marathon.

His team found over two hundred tweets, many of which were sent out to reassure families and friends of the tweeter’s safety. Tweets went out in multiple languages, reassuring safety and offering support, while others were messages of help, like tweeter NatBreen who sent out “I might be dumb but I'm staying here to let runners use my phone to find their family's #BostonMarathon #PrayersForBoston”.

The range of tweets sent out in the wake of the Bostin tragedy proved that Twitter is not just a means to reconnect family and friends, but also a way for strangers to reach out and help one another, and for news to spread, helping to keep citizens safe. During the manhunt for Boston bombing suspect, too, Twitter proved a way for residents to share information and news and keep in touch during Boston’s mandatory lockdown.

However, Twitter and other social media may prove to be a double edged sword in times of tragedy and confusion.

.

Many people will recognise the way that gossip and rumours spread like wildfire in any area after any kind of disaster, creating an atmosphere of panic and misinformation. With the speed and range of the internet, social media can intensify this situation tenfold. The recent events in Boston have given us ample evidence of this, with several different issues being raised by the way social media has been used in the tragedy.

To begin with, many people have pointed out that amongst the first tweets that went up immediately after the bombings were some that were not so supportive or helpful. Instead of just confirming their own safety and offering help to others, some tweeters used the opportunity to take photos of injured or even killed people in the aftermath of the bombing, circulating the images online and exposing someone’s most painful and frightening moments to the wider public. This incredibly invasive use of technology satisfied the “vultures” of a disaster scene, who may like to stare in horror at injuries without giving any respect to the people who had such injuries inflicted upon them.

Immediately after the bombings, too, a variety of fake Twitter accounts sprang up, falsely offering to donate $1 to a fund for the victims in return for each retweet. This attempt to gain “Twitter popularity” through the exploitation of a tragedy disgusted many, and when a fake “Boston Marathon” twitter got in on it too, Twitter itself took actin, shutting down many fake accounts.

However, while both of these attempts to exploit the Boston bombings caused a great deal of emotional harm, of particular concern was the circulation of misinformation which put real, innocent lives in danger.

Internet forum Reddit was the first group to start putting forth images and details about several so-called “Boston bombing suspects”, putting innocent people under pressure and suspicion. Reddit’s moderator wrote: “Find people carrying black bags. If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”

Reddit then proceeded to single out a student called Sunil Tripathi, starting an online witch hunt and slur-fest about the young man, who is currently missing. With Twitter and other forums, like 4chan, jumping quickly onboard, many wrongly accused individuals and their families were suffering from additional concern and emotional upset from suddenly being the targets of a vast international online community.

Indeed, the FBI drew attention to these wrongly accused individuals as part of the reason they released the photos of the actual, official suspects of the Boston bombing, wanting to attract attention away from these innocent people and families. Reddit finally apologised in an official statement, saying: “[T]hough started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”

In this particular incident, none of the falsely accused were in physical danger. However, it’s easy to see how in another situation, the way social media enables people to leap to conclusions could lead to innocent people being hurt.

Amongst these more serious concerns, some people have been wondering about the etiquette of social media during tragic events like this. Particularly a concern for people living in areas directly affected by this disaster is the question: when is it appropriate to get back to “posting as usual”? If your entire Facebook feed is dominated by messages of support and/or news from something like the Boston bombings, is it just plain crass to then post some photos from your recent holiday? For Australians with American friends or relatives, this line may be further blurred - if only three or four people out of the hundreds of people on your Facebook feed are posting about Boston, should you join them in solidarity? Or recognise that the issue is not as close to home as it is for your American friends?

There are no clear answers to subtler questions of etiquette like this during times of tragedy. Despite our growing comfort with social media, it is still a very new area, and the cultural rules and sensitivities around it are still being mapped out.

Nevertheless, in times of tragedy it is very clear that social media plays a new and crucial role in reconnecting families and friends, and spreading news and warnings of danger to those affected by it.

Keen to get on Twitter yourself? Call Optus for some of the best mobile broadband plans for your phone and portable devices on 1300 137 897.