Tragedy in the time of Twitter: How social media expedites news during disasters

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 5:20 p.m. MDT

A makeshift memorial sits at the spot where the first bomb detonated on April 15 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street in Boston, Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

Madeline Rogers has a few fears. One of them is raising kids in a time filled with tragedy — and Twitter.

Minutes after two explosions rocked the streets of Boston on April 15, Twitter experienced a wave of updates before local and national news stations could pull information together.

Rogers, a Sandy, Utah, resident who first heard about the bombings from the social media site, tweeted her hesitation about ever having kids as she continued to watch a steady stream of news pour onto her Twitter feed.

“I never heard of stuff like this when I was younger,” Rogers told the Deseret News. “It makes me worry. Just bringing a kid into a world of such evil. That’s not the childhood I had. I don’t want a child to experience that.”

Rogers' reaction to the tragedy raises the question: What are we gaining from complete social media saturation, especially in times of tragedy? We may be increasing our exposure to doom and gloom, and in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt, Twitter users actually complicated matters by sharing sensitive information. (The Boston Police Department tweeted to local residents, asking them to stop disclosing information that could compromise the officers' search.)

But the inundation of social media coverage may actually be a tool for acceptance and empathy when tragedy strikes, according to one media psychologist.

A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center measured social media and news consumption by adults under the age of 30. The study indicated that adults who had a social media presence on Twitter were more likely to get and share news via the site.

Currently, there are more than 554 million active users on Twitter, sending an average of 58 million tweets per day.

The literally millions of tweets about the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks gave the world a 360 degree look at disaster, which according to media psychologist Pamela Rutledge could be an empowering pathway to empathy and healing.

“Twitter allows people who are (at the scene) but not part of a primary news organization to share impressions,” she said.

Rutledge, who is the director of the media psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, said that social media provides opportunities for the world to be engaged, giving users a chance to feel like they are participating in the trauma in an empathetic way.

“Empathy because they can see a blow-by-blow of the anxiety and horror of what’s happening,” she said. “They can express sympathy and concern and willingness to help in a very real way. It’s how they process trauma and grief.”

More recently, in the aftermath of the EF-5 tornado that decimated Moore, Okla., on May 20, Americans all around the country were actively connecting to the tragedy by tweeting #prayforoklahoma and sharing condolences on Facebook.

This outpouring of interactive empathy was prevalent during the Boston attacks, as well.

Social media’s engagement with the Boston Marathon attacks was unprecedented, Rutledge said.

Compare that with 2001, when viewers remained glued to their television sets as news stations aired 93 hours of continuous coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Americans were left to fill in the gaps while flipping from one network to the other.

“It increases anxiety and fear when you don’t know what was going on,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge recounted a story about a colleague who was on board a flight about to take off from LaGuardia Airport when the planes hit the World Trade Center. His daughter became frantic when she thought her father was potentially a victim of the terrorist attacks.

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