Boston – the double edged sword of social media

20 04 2013

I will start by paying tribute to the people of Boston. It takes a lot to shock me these days but the events at the marathon really managed to do that.

This was an horrific and evil crime. Calculated to slaughter innocents and given that the youngest victim, Martin Richards, was only 8 years old it succeeded in doing just that.

There is a dreadful picture circulating which has now been picked up by the mainstream media. It shows Martin stood on the railings watching the race with his mother and sister. Behind him is one of the suspects and between them is the bomb in the backpack. This picture horrified me more than any of the graphic injury shots which were quickly posted after the event.

It shocked me more because I don’t think it should ever have seen the light of day. It was no doubt taken minutes before detonation and – knowing what happened next – I felt powerless and empty just looking at it.

It captures evil incarnate and I wasn’t prepared for that. It was circulated this morning on Twitter and has now made it onto the front cover of a UK national newspaper.

There are some things which are simply best not shared – this is one of those things.

Once again, in the case of the Boston bombings it was social media which broke the news to a horrified world. First there were pictures of smoke clouds and even the moment of explosion. Then came the graphic shots.

These really are not for the faint hearted. The most famous of them is the one of the man in the cowboy hat assisting the gravely injured man in the wheelchair.

I won’t describe the unedited version of that picture any further as it is horrific but that one image manages to capture the severity, the tragedy and the self-less heroism which emerged in the minutes after the bombs went off.

In some ways this is a picture that shouldn’t be shared because of its graphic nature but also should be shared because of the human spirit it demonstrates.

Back in January I blogged about the helicopter crash in Vauxhall, London.

To summarise it was a text book example of how to manage a major incident on social media.

Boston gave us an even more vivid example of what emergency services are up against when confronted with the Internet in the aftermath of disaster.

I have previously talked about how everyone is now a journalist. Everyone has a camera on their phone these days as well as the ability to publish pictures instantly around the world.

Inevitably, this happened in Boston. Uncontrolled, instant dissemination of images, rumours and accounts reaching a global audience within minutes.

There is no editing on Twitter. Many of the pictures circulated would never have been shown on main stream media (Carlos the Cowboy hero being one of them – iconic though it was.)

There was no consideration for the feelings of others. That picture of Carlos went around the world in moments and it probably reached other continents well before the family of the poor victim knew anything about the situation.

Boston illustrates how the professional agencies are fighting a losing battle with citizen journalism. Of course people have every right to post and pass information but there is no regulation and no self control.

Whatever the agencies in Boston came out with had to be good. I think they passed the test but it also demonstrates that whilst the primary role of those services is to deal with the scene and the injured – managing what is being said about that scene is right up there in the list of priorities.

Anyone can now spread panic and fear with a mobile phone.

Over the course of the next day or two speculation was rife across social media as to possible motives and suspects. This has to be monitored for clues and evidence as much as anything else. We now know that one of the main suspects was tweeting in the immediate aftermath of the explosions.

Whilst the authorities are passing on useful information on social media, the conspiracy theorists are busy proclaiming it to be another “false flag” incident. A positive message has to come from the professionals to counter this nonsense.

During this time a number of “suspects” were identified and outed on social media. None of these were right and it placed innocent people in great danger.

Events then took a massive turn when the suspects were cornered. An officer lost his life in the ensuing gun battle and Boston was placed on lockdown in the biggest show of police presence in history.

These scenes were incredible. Ten thousand officers conducting a house by house search whilst a major US city looked like a ghost town.

Throughout this, the Mayor, Colonel Albens and other agency representatives did a superb job of keeping the media in the loop. Their regular press briefings were informative and human.

Mainstream media, and particularly American networks, went into speculation mode. They didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory with some of the inane, time-filling, desperate commentary they were coming out with.

They may as well have said “we don’t have the first damn clue what’s going on so we’re just going to report every rumour as fact.”

Someone commented on Twitter that they almost longed for the days when you got your news in some semblance of factual order in the newspaper a day later.

And the rumour mill on social media? Wild and frenzied. People scanning the police radio channels and then tweeting what they heard – thereby compromising the tactics of the SWAT teams and potentially alerting the suspect of their activity.

This is a ridiculously stupid and irresponsible thing to do and it led to a desperate appeal from the authorities pleading with them to stop.

Anyone who has worked a major incident will know that individual radio transmissions are fragments. They are snippets of information, sometimes irrelevant and sometimes they aren’t even right. They are often a long way from the big picture.

Just about every transmission was broadcast as fact. This led to all sorts of inaccuracies. Suspect caught – suspect not caught. This vehicle – that vehicle. Connecticut, Niagra, New York.

The police on the ground had a massively important job to do and, at times, social media made it many times harder than it needed to be. Even President Obama referred to the Internet speculation in his news briefing after the second suspect had been caught.

The simplest thing to do in events like this is to shut social media off. That would be an affront to free speech and democracy. However, there is no way that you can rely on everybody to self- regulate and be sensible either. Doing so would also shut down a vital channel of communications.

Effectively, the only option is for the professional agencies to have a very active social media presence and to mobilise it immediately and comprehensively.

Not doing this is not an option and services need to develop their strategies quickly and in advance. Social media cannot be ignored and it has to be a strategic priority for disaster planning.

If anyone doubts how important social media is – if you can – review the footage from the last 24hrs and count the number of times the TV reporters refer to Twitter.

Boston has shown that it is impossible to stop or control what happens on the Internet after a major incident. The challenge is to manage it as swiftly and effectively as possible.

As well as passing my sincere condolences to the victims of this tragedy I would like to pay tribute to the first responders and public who ran towards danger on the day itself. I also congratulate the emergency services and all law enforcement agencies involved in the subsequent investigation and manhunt. You have done a magnificent job.

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13 responses

20 04 2013
retiredandangry

I can’t think of anything to say except that I agree with every single word and sentiment. Great piece, needed saying

20 04 2013
julieanneda

I avoided news and rationed Twitter about the event on purpose choosing to just wait for a conclusion from a reliable source. I totally agree with the second half of your blog but disagree over the little boy picture for all the reasons it hurts you….
That is fine it is a personal choice. To me as a mum it savagely reminds that each moment is precious…

20 04 2013
Scotsrogue

I thought that Boston PD did a very good job of utilising SM to get their message out to the public. Twitter is scary sometimes with the speed and nature of information shared. It’s like having an instant collection of snapshots of an incident. SM is indeed right up there in priority list for an SIO. A very incisive blog.

20 04 2013
longitude 0 (@longitude0)

Was surprised to learn (watching Twitter last night) that in the US people can still listen in on police radio conversations. Can one do that here in the UK – is it permitted to do so?

It occurred to me that someone may have been too busy listening to the Boston police radio channels – or reading Twitter – to think to check his own boat stored in his back garden. Until, according to some tweets, public access to the police “scanners” was turned off and/or the lock-down was partially lifted: perhaps only then did he think of checking his boat.

21 04 2013
Cindy

Perhaps as an American, I can clarify some details for you. While we can monitor some Police channels (not all of them), it’s not something that really attracts many Americans.

The gentleman to whom you are referring to, was in his house all day during the “lockdown” of Watertown. Law enforcement requested that everyone stay in their houses with the doors locked, which is what he did. Upon lifting the lockdown, he left his house to go smoke a cigarette. While on his way to his garage, he passed by his boat and noticed blood on the side. He retrieved a ladder and lifted the canvass to discover a body covered in blood. He immediately retreated to his home to call the police.

20 04 2013
Chief Scott Silverii, Ph.D.

Reblogged this on Bright Blue Line and commented:
A thoughtful account on the use of social media from a UK perspective

20 04 2013
Helen

I agree with Julieanneda about the photo, and in fact all photos, however awful. We need to be reminded life is precious and how awful man can be to man. Those who don’t want to view don’t have to. Interesting too how many police were tweeting detail that shouldn’t have been, not just Joe Bloggs?!

20 04 2013
retiredandangry

I quite agree Helen, a lot of inappropriate Tweeting. I saw one Tweet supposedly from a California Police Officer “Bleed out F***er”, not really a good use of SM by a Police Officer

20 04 2013
afw20

I mostly agree with this article, however I do feel that citizen journalism deserves more praise than it gets. Because of these various social platforms, I have learnt so much more about the Boston bombings, Obama’s poison letter, the Sandyhook shootings etc. than I would have done via a newspaper; it is much more accessible. More and more (most noticeably, the ‘younger’ generation) also trust the first-hand accounts from citizens rather than (often biased) newspapers- ie the phone-hacking scandal has considerably made me lose trust in the media/newspapers and more on the simple recollection of events from ‘everyday’ citizens. I do think some of the images posted from the bombings should have been treated with more sensitivity but the public are seeking the truth in this ‘instant message’ culture, rather than a ‘summary of events’ style a day or so later. It makes us feel part of the world, rather than outsiders looking in.

20 04 2013
Gargine

Great blog, thoughtful insight and well argued points. what makes twitter such a great place makes It
a dangerous one too.

20 04 2013
Brackendale

great blog. Thought it was ironic in USA they thanked the police et all for what they did over all this, if this had happened in the UK they would get no thanks and probably a inquiry too ! Shame we dont value our Police in the same way.

21 04 2013
dorsetrachel

I think the key comment in your blog is this; “During this time a number of “suspects” were identified and outed on social media. None of these were right and it placed innocent people in great danger.” Sunil Tripathi’s sister says something very similar in this @MotherJones article “How my innocent brother was made into a bombing suspect” http://t.co/MQ6RnOl3i4 Twitter and other SM fora are becoming a competition, more interested in speed than accuracy and in the process, lives are being destroyed. Self-moderation and self-control are becoming more and more vital. An *innocent face* is no longer a valid excuse.

21 04 2013
seo singapore

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