Social media can be invaluable in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or breaking news story. It can also give you a dangerously distorted picture of what's going on.
When a coworker told me about the Boston Marathon bombings minutes after they happened last week, for example, I immediately signed on to Twitter and got swept away by the flood of information. But, like a flood, social media can suck you so far below the surface so suddenly that you find yourself gasping for air, unable to find truth in the murky depths.
Social networks offer valuable, factual sources, but in the precious hours following a disaster, they become a real-life version of the Telephone game we played as kids: One kernel of truth gets so distorted, so exaggerated, that it turns into a rumor at best and a malicious lie at worst.
We shake our heads now at the obvious gaffes--the photo of a man on a roof overlooking the marathon that went viral on Facebook, and the CNN report of a suspect in custody that flashed through Twitter feeds in an instant. That man on a rooftop was just a man. That suspect-in-custody report was false. Those were last week's errors. But every time disaster strikes, misinformation reigns and the Internet loses its collective mind.
It's all too easy to get sucked into a social media maelstrom during a catastrophe. But a few major missteps following the Boston Marathon bombing provide a helpful guide of dos and don'ts, should we choose to follow them.
Do: Choose your sources wisely
It seems obvious enough: Random people on the Internet probably are not the best sources of information. But it's a tough lesson to learn when even high-profile news organizations get the facts wrong, as we learned last week when CNN falsely reported that police had apprehended a suspect in the Boston bombings.
The New York Post also drummed up controversy by publishing a photo of two guys wearing bags at the site of the explosion, asking readers to submit information about the "Bag Men." Only one problem: Those two weren't terrorists, just bystanders.
So who can you trust? Perhaps no one. But those tweeting on the ground from Boston, such as reporters for the Boston Globe, proved reliable sources. Eyewitnesses at the scene, particularly those with reporting backgrounds, tweeted quick, factual updates that were useful in getting the news out to the local community. NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin and Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa were also important additions to a curated crisis Twitter list (and also just in general).
But even the most high-minded reporters and citizen journalists get the facts wrong sometimes.
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