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Crowdsourcing a crisis: How to use Twitter in a tragedy

Caitlin McGarry | April 24, 2013
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.

"Don't shame people on Twitter for passing on speculation," Slate social media editor Jeremy Stahl wrote in a column following the Boston bombings. "Because of the nature of breaking news, factual mistakes will be made and everyone will make them. Let he who is without sin cast the first critical tweet."

Don't: Play Internet detective

The New York Post's "Bag Men" cover was the most public example of a photo taken out of context, but people all over the Internet were sharing photos of bystanders at the site of the explosions, trying to figure it out if they were suspects.

A small group of Redditors decided to take on the challenge of finding the Boston bomber, though the FBI ended up pinpointing the suspects using surveillance footage from a department store. Internet sleuths tuned in to the Boston Police Department scanner live-tweeted all updates heard over the air, which resulted in innocent people being named as suspects. Their photos were plastered all over the Internet.

As The Atlantic Wire noted, journalists know that police scanner conversations are full of unconfirmed information and tend not to report on them until facts are confirmed. Officials last Friday asked the public to stop reporting police scanner activity to curb the spread of misinformation.

When news of December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, hit social media with early news reports naming Ryan Lanza as the suspected shooter, people immediately tracked him down on Facebook, circulated his photo, harassed his friends, and reposted his status updates as if they were clues to his motive. Of course, now we know that the Newtown killer's name was actually Adam Lanza.

Some have branded the Twitter detectives and their ilk vigilantes, but perhaps, like most of us, the amateur investigators got caught up in the swirl of violence and were desperate to make sense of it. A Reddit moderator posted a public apology (since taken down) to the family of an innocent man that the forum had painted as a culprit in the chaos of the M.I.T. shooting and subsequent police chase.

Do: Learn from past mistakes

The Boston Marathon bombing is the most recent and most obvious example of a tragedy that spawned an outpouring of emotion on social media. Many bystanders captured the explosions on shaky smartphone footage and shared those clips on Vine, YouTube, and Twitter. Then there was the aftermath: Twitter photos of bloody limbs, and constant speculation over the suspects' identities.

Social networks were also used to communicate and find facts in the wake of the bombings. Massachusetts officials encouraged people to send Facebook messages rather than make cell phone calls and clog the network in the hours following the explosions. The FBI used YouTube to post surveillance video of the suspects, and journalists circulated photos on Twitter. Police officers tweeted steadily to communicate updates as they unfolded.


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