As time passes from the week that began with the bombings at the Boston Marathon and ended in the death and capture of the two suspects, we have a chance to assess and understand not only the details of the crime, but also how it was reported in the media and–perhaps more importantly–how social media played both a helpful and harmful role in coverage and analysis of the event. As a number of commentators have noted, this is the first terror attack in the US in which many Americans participated in real time via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other social media. Clearly, the days of “being glued to the TV” during a national crisis are over. Sure, many of us were still glued to the television–but we were also fully engaged with our fellow citizens online at the same time.
This was not always a good thing. Users of Reddit, the social media news and entertainment site, tried to organize a “crowd sourced” investigation that rapidly turned into a witch hunt (with one poor family’s missing son wrongly accused of being a terrorist). Reddit’s CEO later publicly apologized for the site’s failings associated with it’s “investigation.” Of course, traditional media outlets had their own well-documented failures. Critics pilloried CNN for its inaccurate reporting about a suspect being arrested. The New York Post reported that 12 people had been killed (at the time it was three), and later fingered two innocent Marathon bystanders as the “Bag Men.”
Whatever its failings, however, social media also played a positive role. The national distribution of the photo and videos of the two suspects was almost instantaneous as people passed them along via Facebook, Twitter and other outlets. Outpourings of support and financial aid to the victims have been greased by friction free social media.
As in other areas of life, the Internet and social media have greatly speeded things up. Four days after the bombings, the suspects were identified and captured. It took us more than 10 years to get Osama bin Laden. One gets the sense that the memory of the Boston attacks may fade more quickly that 9/11, too.
What is clear, however, is that social media simply reflects and magnifies the entire range of human experience in times of crisis: we share and support great acts of heroism, we do and say things that are incredibly stupid and hurtful. These human gifts and flaws have always been there and always will be. Social media simply gives us the opportunity to put them into action more quickly and easily. It will be up to us to decide whether that power is for good or for ill.