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In Face of Disaster, Social Media Helped Spread News and Connect Bostonians

April 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Immediately after the Boston Marathon bombings, people took to social media and other technology to spread news about the attacks and check on loved ones. Howard Kurtz and Lauren Ashburn examine with political editor Christina Bellantoni how social media can act as both an emergency tool and as a platform to express grief.
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GWEN IFILL: Technology changed the speed and the accuracy with which we learned of the Boston attacks, but it also quickly became a platform for the nation’s shock and grief.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni talked with our Daily Download team about that.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: For that look at how technology factored into yesterday’s tragedy I’m joined by Lauren Ashburn, Daily Download editor-in-chief, and Howard Kurtz, Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Thanks for being here.

So, after 9/11, we saw people physically putting up photos of their missing loved ones in Lower Manhattan. Yesterday, the Internet provided a sense of comfort for some. What did we see?

LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily-Download.com: Well, Google Person Finder factored into this. We have a graph that can show you exactly what it looks like.

There’s a big button that says “I’m looking for.” You can type in the name of somebody. Or “I have information about,” and you can also type in the name of someone. Then you can take this tool and embed it on your own website.

So, in the aftermath of disaster, Howie, it really seems like this tool and others are much more effective than going to the bulletin board near the World Trade towers and scanning all of the pictures.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: And the tone of Twitter, where there were about five million tweets in 24 hours according to the website Topsy, was very striking to me, because, in the beginning, when Twitter was young, journalists kind of looked down their nose, well, anybody can post anything. How do we know it’s true? And often things were not true.

Now, while there were examples of excesses in partisanship, I found, really, Twitter has almost grown up. There was a tone of restraint and people saying they were not going to retweet every last bit of speculation, and even criticizing the mainstream media for speculating about who was behind this attack.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Journalists did that, too.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And there was a lot of misinformation out there. You have seen that in the wake of a lot of different types of tragedies, that major news …

LAUREN ASHBURN: Not so much now, though, during this one.

You remember Hurricane Sandy, when there were doctored pictures of a shark swimming through a New Jersey neighborhood. And the call, as Howie said here, was for restraint, a lot of journalists and other people saying don’t retweet things that you don’t know to be true.

HOWARD KURTZ: There was the New York Post mistakenly reporting, for example, that the death toll was 12, not initially two or three, and saying there was a Saudi suspect, when that was unconfirmed. Twitter spanked the news organizations that went off the rails.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.

And, on Facebook, this became a site where people could check in on their friends that were running the marathon or people that lived up there. You also saw like this online tribute that was created by a D.C.-based designer, Matt Ortega. He posted all these sports-themed Facebook images that you could share with your friends to sort of show solidarity there.

LAUREN ASHBURN: I saw lots of memes put together, a heart of the city of Boston saying “We love you” that had the actual map of the city on it.

It was an outpouring of love, as there is oftentimes amidst tragedy. But there was also not some very helpful things. There was an “_bostonmarathon” on Twitter that was taken down within an hour because it was fake. They were asking for money. And we have seen that a lot in the past. But this one was caught very quickly.

HOWARD KURTZ: And not just on Facebook, but as you were saying before we came on the air, on Tumblr and Instagram. You had a sense of community, sharing of photos, sharing of feelings, sharing of sympathy.

It used to be television was the place where everybody gathered around the hearth. And television still played a very important role, the broadcast networks going wall-to-wall for a while, but now you see that much more online. And the tone was heartening.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Even our own Mr. Rogers from PBS, this quote that he said about finding the helpers, that’s a way to comfort children in times of tragedy, was going viral.

LAUREN ASHBURN: I found it very interesting also who was first.

You know, journalism, part of the problem in breaking news stories is that everybody rushes to be first. Well, here, it was a Twitter picture of someone saying “Holy cow” and hashtag “explosion.” And that was at 2:50 p.m. on Monday.

HOWARD KURTZ: Monday.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And then the Boston Police Department didn’t confirm it until 3:39.

Twitter had the actual pictures and eyewitness accounts, and TV and radio and the Net had to really play catch-up.

HOWARD KURTZ: There are more people tweeting than there are journalists in the world. So, it’s often going to get there first.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sure.

And you saw some actual physical tributes, like this Light Brigade picture that we have here, the Overpass Light Brigade. This was something that was really shared a lot on social media as well.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And there were other ones, too, like that, in different cities. There was one in New York that said “N.Y. Heart” and then a B. in the …

HOWARD KURTZ: Boston Red Sox, yes, logo.

LAUREN ASHBURN: … Boston Red Sox logo.

HOWARD KURTZ: You mentioned the Boston Police Department. Now, that was very aggressive in using online, Twitter.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes.

Let’s talk more about how investigators are soliciting this information from crowds via social networking, like this tweet from the Boston Police Department saying that we’re looking for video of the finish line. Is this unusual?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, they used it more.

What I found interesting is if you looked at the Boston Police Department’s Twitter feed, at 1:38 in the afternoon, they put up a picture of runners at the finish line. And at — by the time it was 3:39, they came out with the announcement. They used that Twitter feed to get out information, like a — commissioner, what he’s saying, what areas are closed, what you can do for loved ones, where you can find things.

And the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said, use your — if you’re having a problem with your cell phone, use your texting, and that has less bandwidth.

HOWARD KURTZ: With cell service having been shut down for a while after the bombings, this really was the way to communicate for the police and for people using social media.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Lauren Ashburn, Howie Kurtz, thanks very much.

HOWARD KURTZ: Thank you.