Boston bombs undo social media

The tragic events of the Boston Marathon have exposed the shortcomings of social media as an information source.

Boston Marathon moment s after the bomb blast - reproduced kind permission Vjeran Pavic

Boston Marathon moments after the bomb blast – reproduced kind permission Vjeran Pavic

 To hear the podcast of Michelle Woodward’s report for our radio programme PassWord click BostonMarathon

Following the terrorist outrage at the end of the Boston Marathon that left three dead and 170 injured many commentators have begun to question the role of social media during emergencies as practical jokers and marketeers used the new media to exploit panic.

The practice saw the creation of several fictitious incidents, in one a photograph of a man approaching an injured woman as she finished the marathon was turned by social media into an attempt to propose to her from her boyfriend tragically ended by the bomb explosion.

In another a fake appeal was started via twitter that stated for everyone who signed up to it a dollar would be given to the appeal for the bomber’s victims.

The impact of social media was particularly pronounced as the technology rapidly became a fallback due to the failure of the mobile phone network, a now familiar occurrence during disasters such as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 attack on the London transport system.

The panic caused by the events in all four cases was exacerbated by the collapse of mobile networks quite literally caused by the rapid increase of traffic from anxious relatives trying to locate members of their family.

Though according to some inaccurate reports the authorities also called for a mobile shutdown to prevent the network being used to detonate other devices remotely.

A mobile shutdown that stampeded parents, friends and relatives to the social networks that psychologists have already noticed are often conduits for distortion and exaggeration among those using them.

The social media mis-reporting has led to condemnation of the social networks particularly on the BBC’s Question Time and will inevitably begin to again reinforce the reputation of news outlets as sources of information during a crisis.


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