I first heard about the Boston Marathon bombings at my desk outside of the city via text and on Twitter.
"Hey are you downtown? Is everything okay?"
The whole experience was uncannily reminiscent of the morning of March 11, 2011, when I found out about the earthquakes and tsunamis in Fukushima. I woke up to a cascade of texts and tweets lamenting the monstrous disaster mother nature wrought, and messages inquired whether my family and friends were safe. Before I had any real sense of what was going on, I went straight to my iPhone for social media updates.
There, on Twitter and on Facebook, especially, I found many of the answers I was looking for. What had happened? Who was involved? Where did this take place? When did this happen? Why was the tsunami and following earthquakes so damaging? While much of the primary reports were simply reactionary and not necessarily confirmed with hard facts, I was able to glean that my family was safe and that my friends who were stuck at work were finding their way. Because the disaster affected me directly, that is what I wanted to find out about first.
Social media posts run the risk of hyperbole, and the Twitterati have definitely reported woeful inaccuracies. Early reports of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings were speckled with elusive speculation and hate-mongering to nobody's help or insight. Gawker compiles a list of conspiracy theories about James Holmes and how the The Dark Knight Rises predicted most disastrous news in recent memory including Aurora, Sandy Hook and even Hurricane Sandy. But these errors also occur outside the realm of social media as we saw in the aftermath of the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002.
Bastions of traditional American media like Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Katherine Weymouth — publishers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively — have lamented the "free-ness of the Internet." While I understand their point, I implore them and social media skeptics to view the merits of citizen journalism in a different light.
Facebook posts and Tweets have a way of giving personal relevance to a national or global news story. In a phone conversation with my best friend, a native of Massachusetts who now lives in Georgia, Megan recounted her thought process as she decided how she would find out more about the Boston Marathon bombings. The gravity of the event, which she had first heard about on the radio, didn't really set in until she scrolled through her news feeds.
"I was about to turn on CNN but then I thought, 'wait, why don't I just go on Facebook?' I'll know what happened better there." By "knowing what happened better," she meant understanding how the event affected the people she knew. Because news about bombings or other highly contentious disasters unfold so dynamically in the clout of uncertainty, we crave something tangible — something that can orient us amid the chaotic unknown. Social media is a conduit for connecting us directly to people we know and the events surrounding them, which is a vital part of the news narrative. Without it, coverage of the Arab Spring would have lacked the vividness of the resounding voices that cried for democracy and an end to dictatorships.
Anyone who dismisses social media's importance during disaster coverage are misguided. If, for nothing else, social media served as a sound logistic alternative when cell phone service shut down in Boston. As for qualms about inaccuracy or spammers who capitalize on tragedy to report hyperbolic nothings, we ought to educate ourselves about how to navigate and filter through this paradigm of information consumption. Of course, social media should not be the only platform to comprehend what happened; only after consulting accurate, hard news accounts can we understand the picture in full. But as more disasters emerge, social media proves to be a compelling platform that helps us connect, console and inform.