Social networking in the time of tragedy

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 17, 2013

From The News Desk

Andy Warhol may as well have predicted it: In the future, every tragedy will be recorded  in six-second loops captured by Vine or oft-shared photographs on Instagram and shared on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Tragedy doesn't merely spread through social media; it takes hold of it and refuses to let go.

So it went after the Boston Marathon explosions, which reportedly killed three people and injured at least 176 others. Social media users were privy to the constant updates on even that number; at first it was speculated that "dozens" were hurt, then "more than 144," and so on, until reaching that final tally. Before that we watched as the number of explosions was questioned, starting with "two" and then oscillating as people Tweeted half-heard information from police radios before finally setting, again, on two.

Many probably learned of the explosions on Twitter, and were held rapt in the hours of following coverage -- whether they wanted to be or not.

Tweets spreading falsehoods, half-truths, and incomplete news reports were the norm, though things have drastically improved since the shooting at Newtown. Images of the fallout, some of which showed blood-stained pavement and other graphic imagery, spread throughout the Web. Small clips of the explosions captured with Vine were shared across social networks and scooped up by news outlets live-blogging the event and its aftermath.

The proliferation of these graphic stories, images, and videos, was practically impossible to avoid without turning off computers, tablets, smartphones, and television sets. That isn't to say that social media wasn't valuable after the explosions: Facebook and Twitter allowed people to contact friends and relatives who were participating in the Marathon. The FBI solicited images and videos from the public in an attempt to identify whoever is responsible for the explosions. 

But undoubtedly there are others who felt that they couldn't evade these graphic images, no matter where they turned. As they spread across Twitter, so too were they scooped up and displayed to unwitting users of services like Flipboard, which gathers images and updates from social media and displays them in a "personalized magazine." Items shared to Facebook could easily have been picked up by Flipboard or, unfortunately, pushed directly to the lock and home screens of Facebook Home users.

The National Center for PTSD states that people, especially children, who are exposed to media coverage of traumatic events -- such as the 9/11 attacks -- are more likely to exhibit increased stress symptoms and, in the children's case, post-traumatic stress disorder. Constant exposure to videos of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and war-related imagery all lead to increased stress and PTSD-related symptoms.

Now, journalistic ethics -- or the lack thereof -- weren't ruined by social media. The New York Post got nearly every detail about the incident wrong, and the New York Daily News doctored an image on its cover to make it less graphic didn't lower its standards to accomodate social media. That's just the way it is.

Still, social media certainly made it easier to pass along the Post's inaccurate information, on top of the other reports filed from other publications and layman who shared what they saw with the rest of the world. These graphic, sometimes erroneous reports contribute to what BuzzFeed is calling the "fear of missing out on grief" and "leading us to post publicly about tragedy, when we don't actually have much to say."

Combine this desire to over-share and overstate our own grief in response to a tragedy with all of the tools, services, and websites that gather that information, and you've suddenly got a nigh-ubiquitous presence on people's televisions, smartphones, and computers.

The solution?

"When something terrible happens that affects a large group of people, it’s often a pretty good policy to shut the hell up," writes Wired's Mat Honan. "When the temptation arises to add to the noise and clutter and weigh in with your take–or to make the situation about something else–it’s often a really good time to take a break."

I imagine we could all use a break, from the graphic imagery to the false reports and all the way back to fake Twitter accounts spreading misinformation, equating Likes or shares or favorites or whatever to offering condolence, and using false information in a Facebook post to garner attention. Many of us turned to social media for information about what happened; we should try to remember the solace of silence as well.

[Image courtesy jeroenpots]