Boston: How Social Media and Other Technologies Kept Boston Informed When Tragedy Hit Home
After the Boston Marathon bombings, the shooting at M.I.T., the 7-11 robbery and a police chase, students in the Greater Boston Area are grateful for traditional public safety officials. But they’re also grateful for social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and GroupMe (a group messaging app), that kept them safe and informed tragedy after tragedy.
Sarah Garvey, a sophomore at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) on April 18th for her a capella rehearsal when she was shushed by another student staring at a cell phone.
“(The student) looked horrified as she read the emergency text the university had sent to her phone,” Garvey said. “She told us that a police officer had been shot in a very nearby building and to stay inside because the area wasn’t safe.”
About a minute later, everyone’s phones rang with alerts from M.I.T., social media updates and text messages or calls from concerned friends, Garvey said.
Several students found the most up-to-date information about the April 18th M.I.T. and Watertown shootings on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and police scanners, rather than traditional television news stations.
Emilio Gonzalez-Cervantes, a senior at M.I.T., watched a local Boston TV station WHDH while checking Twitter and police scanners simultaneously. He was surprised that Twitter and police scanners were constantly giving him new information, whereas the TV station simply repeated what he already heard.
Gonzalez-Cervantes thought social media played an important role in keeping both his friends and him safe.
“My friend was about to head to the 7-11 minutes before it was robbed,” Gonzalez-Cervantes said.
Luckily he was warned by social media and text alerts that the M.I.T. campus was on lock down, and he stayed inside.
Leslie Stephens, a junior at Wellesley College, said Facebook, Twitter and GroupMe were all useful for contacting friends and ensuring everyone was safe after the shooting on campus.
She said information from online news sources came in about 15 minutes after she received the news on Twitter, giving her a “vivid portrayal of where media is going” because she and other students were passing up traditional online news article to keep up with Twitter’s 140-character updates.
“As online articles have made print news near obsolete . . . now Twitter is making online news (articles) near obsolete,” she said.
Sravanti Tekumalla, a first year student at Wellesley College, said new technology is making the spread of information almost instantaneous, even as tragic events unfold and there are no clear answers.
“I remember learning about the Marathon Monday bombings about 10 minutes after it happened, which I don’t think would have been the case a few years ago, ” Tekumalla said.
She said many college students around the nation know at least one person who goes to school in Boston, so when those people shared information, it spread through their web of connections quickly.
Although many students have used Twitter for socializing and getting the latest gossip, the Boston bombings have encouraged many to turn to social media first when news breaks.
“The Boston Marathon incident is the first time I’ve ever used Twitter, but immediately following the sound of the second of the two explosions, I downloaded (Twitter) and subscribed to all Boston news outlets,” Stephens said. “This is where I first heard that the explosions were, in fact, bombs and not manhole covers, as everyone who was racing from the scene was reporting.”
Stephens also used Twitter as her main news source for the subsequent tragedies in Boston that week. She followed tweets from a Boston Globe reporter and a witness of the Watertown shootout, and she thought Twitter was the fastest media outlet, by far.
But although social media spreads the latest information, it also spreads rumors and misinformation.
“People had an overwhelming amount of information on their hands, and there wasn’t enough sifting of information to see if it was accurate or not,” Tekumalla said. “I think it’s important for people to consume social media responsibly and not take everything they see as fact-checked information.”
Aside from the propagation of misinformation through social media, some thought the spread of information from police scanners on social media sources was dangerous because criminals could misuse that information to their advantage.
“While I believe that the police scanner provided a lot of useful information, which was then broadcasted through Twitter, I think it is also dangerous that such information is online,” Stephens said. “Police put the police scanner offline (on April 19th) because (social media) users were leaking critical information about their whereabouts, which they believed may be accessible by the second suspect.”
While social media did not provide entirely accurate information, and at times provided too much information, it helped many college students in the Greater Boston Area stay in touch and informed.