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Hinman Pulse

March 24, 2014

Responding to Disaster in the Internet Age

by Hinman Team

Around the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I asked my Mom if she remembered anything about it. She replied that it was actually her earliest memory, sitting around the television with her shocked parents, absorbing the national tragedy. Many in my Mom’s generation have similar stories; the assassination is considered to be the day that the television became the medium through which we digested important events. From that time until recently, television was the best way for authorities to quickly deliver pertinent information to the public in the wake of disasters.

That’s all changing as our society becomes immersed in the internet age. Researchers estimate that in the year 2002, 23 Exabytes of data was recorded and replicated. While that is an incredible amount of data, we now upload and transfer that much every week. On average, in the minute it takes to read this, over 200 thousand photos will be uploaded to Facebook and over 300 thousand tweets will be sent. This explosion of information is changing how our society responds to disasters in a variety of ways.

If JFK’s assassination was the dawn of the modern age of live television, I will always remember The Boston Marathon Bombing as the first nationwide catastrophe of the internet age. On the day of the attack, we didn’t just go home and tune into one of the major news networks; we digested this tragedy in a torrent of tweets, Facebook updates, pictures, articles, and streamed video on our computers and smartphones.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, law enforcement, media, and emergency response agencies used social media to relay crucial information. The official Boston Police Department twitter account confirmed the bombing before a press conference could be held, and was utilized throughout the chaotic week to make official statements. A google doc was created and blasted out over the internet to match runners, who couldn’t get to their hotels, with Boston residents eager to give them somewhere to stay. The Boston Globe provided mostly accurate information to readers nationwide, well beyond the reach and scope of the newspaper.

However, the availability of rapid information also allows for the propagation of misinformation, spreading fear and panic after an attack designed to do just that. An hour after the bombs went off, the New York Post sent a tweet reporting “at least 12 dead” to its hundreds of thousands of followers, thousands of which “retweeted” it to followers of their own. An unrelated fire at the JFK Library in Boston quickly morphed into a third bombing as the chaos unfolded online. CNN, Fox News, and The Associated Press incorrectly reported that an arrest had been made two days after the attack, before being refuted by the Boston Police Department. Similar errors in reporting plagued the coverage of both the Sandy Hook and Navy Yard shootings. As networks and bloggers struggle to be the first to break news in a faster medium of information, greater speed is often at the expense of factual accuracy.

In the high profile investigation that followed the bombing, law enforcement was aided by the proliferation of pictures and video taken near the marathon finish line. In today’s social media culture, everyone with a smartphone is a potential photographer or videographer. This makes it increasingly difficult for an aggressor to get in and out of a crowded area without being documented. This can prove to be a boon for law enforcement and emergency response personnel investigating an attack. By Thursday, 3 days after the bombing, the FBI had identified the Tsarnaev brothers and flooded the airwaves and the internet with their pictures.

Unfortunately, the FBI wasn’t the only group scrutinizing the many photos and videos coming out of Boston. In the days following the attack, a suspicious looking picture of two men carrying bags near the marathon finish line went viral on social media. The New York Post, who apparently hadn’t had enough falsehoods for one week, picked up the picture and ran it on the cover under the headline, “BAG MEN: Feds Seek these Two Pictured at Boston Marathon”. The men pictured turned out to be Boston residents Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi, who were at no time suspected by the authorities and claimed to fear for their safety in the aftermath of the bombings. The two men brought a libel suit against the NY Post, with litigation or settlement still pending.

Additionally, users of the popular content sharing websites 4chan and Reddit aggregated pictures of their own in a novel, if misguided attempt to identify the bombers through crowdsourcing. Online users mistakenly identified Sunil Tripathi as the bomber, who was later found to be deceased with no foul play suspected. Some likened the online investigation to a witch hunt, prompting a statement from the general manager of Reddit apologizing to the Tripathi family. Crowdsourcing has been successfully utilized in other situations, and shouldn’t be fully discouraged. Authorities searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane recently enlisted the help of 115,000 online volunteers to search millions of satellite images for signs of the aircraft, showing that with proper supervision, crowdsourcing can be a powerful tool.

In the flurry of activity following the Watertown shootout Thursday night following the Boston Marathon, rapid online information proved again to be both valuable and dangerous. Through every twist and turn, TV networks struggled to keep up with the news breaking online. Boston residents were informed to stay off the streets Thursday night into Friday in a dangerous and tense situation. Even if the Tsarnaev brothers had both survived the shootout unharmed, the proliferation of information about them would have made it nearly impossible for them to travel without being identified.

As law enforcement closed in on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the amount of available information was valuable for observers eager to see this chaos come to a close, but caused problems as well. Live streams of the Boston Police scanners were being broadcast around the web, and pictures of the police presence, taken by Boston residents, were being shared all over the country. If the attacker had a laptop or a smartphone, he could have known police positions and other tactical information. The amount of sensitive information being shared online prompted the Boston PD to send out an alert on social media: “WARNING – Do Not Compromise Officer Safety/Tactics by Broadcasting Live Video of Officers”.

In the wake of The Boston Marathon Bombing, it is clear that society is still learning how to react to terrorist events in the internet age. Emergency personnel and law enforcement should continue to implement social media into disaster response strategies, knowing that if they don’t provide timely information, rumors and inaccuracies will threaten to spread further panic. For their part, trusted media organizations need to do a better job of confirming facts in the chaotic aftermath of an attack. Law enforcement agencies should work with social media websites to determine if disaster planning or filtering could mitigate the spread of false identifications and information that could be beneficial to aggressors. Whether we like it or not, 21st century media is changing the way we react to catastrophic events. Adapting to the new media landscape is an important part of being prepared the next time disaster strikes.

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