This Crazy (Social) World

It’s been one month since the Boston Marathon was interrupted by two explosions resulting from the detonation of bombs placed near the finish line of the event. One of the topics to emerge from that tragic day was the role that social media played in sharing information about the event as the news unfolded.

I first learned of the bombing from a Facebook post made by a friend. As is the case with most things posted on social media sites, I wasn’t completely sure if it was true or just someone joking around. I checked the CNN web site, and right there on the front page was a breaking news alert that confirmed what my friend had posted. A few minutes later, the image that was displayed along with the news alert was a picture that someone had snapped with their cell phone from an adjacent building to the first bomb site. The first thing that struck me was how graphic the image was compared to the images that are usually supplied from traditional media outlets. Minutes later Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites were flooded with images and first-hand accounts from people who were near the chaos that unfolded.

I quickly realized that the way this story was being covered by the normal media outlets was… Different. CNN had a feed of images that were being supplied from cell phones and social media sources. Fox News quickly followed suit. Many of these looked like pictures snapped at the front lines of war. Blood, broken bodies, and people missing limbs. This was a shift from the usual news coverage that I was accustomed to.

On Reddit, AMAs (Ask Me Anything) threads started from people who were at the bomb sites. As was the case with a few recent events, consolidated news threads sprang up from members of the site who filled the role of moderators and filtered the eventual flood of news being supplied from the site’s users. Later, after news that the explosions weren’t accidental, dedicated sections of the site were filled with pictures from the event and encouragement to identify suspicious characters.

As has been the case with recent events (such as the tragic shootings in Aurora and Newton), I quickly made Reddit my one-stop shop for news related to the bombings. The reasons for this are simple. The “news” threads that are common for these events are actually moderated very well. There is great care given to making sure that the reports are verified, and in many cases by more than one source. A consolidated list of links to web sites with interesting information are right there for me to visit if I so desire. I can get a quick overview of all the recent developments as reported across multiple news sources in one place, all at a rapid pace.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to the way that social media is utilized during these events. I previously mentioned sections on Reddit dedicated to identifying suspicious persons. At various points during the criminal investigation, a number of people were incorrectly identified as being suspects and personal information about them was released. These people suffered undue stress and abuse as a result.

So, what’s my point? I feel like this event was a turning point in the way that news is reported and consumed. When the bombing suspect was apprehended, Reddit had 272,000 concurrent users accessing the site. Although questions about the legitimacy of the sites as a “news source” have arisen, there’s no doubting it’s popularity as one. Traditional outlets like CNN have incorporated social media aspects in its reports, resulting in more detailed, accurate accounts of events as they happen in as real-time as possible. I don’t think they have a choice when anyone with a cell phone can break exclusive first-hand accounts. I find myself wondering how different the horrors of 9-11 would have been experienced had they happened last month.