Terrorism in the Time of Social Media

As the hunt heats up for the men responsible for the attack on the Boston Marathon, it has been interesting to witness the direct influence social media has had on the story since Monday afternoon.

From the moment the streets were shaken by the twin blasts, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with images and messages as events unfolded simultaneously online and in real-time. The accuracy, on the whole, was remarkable as news outlets began data-mining tidbits and sharing some pieces of info as each appeared validated through re-tweets as hashtags like #bostonmarathon began trending, even globally.

That's not to say there was no shortage of incorrect rumours or assumptions springing up in the confusion. At one point there there were tweets that the Boston Police had jammed all cellphone signals to prevent any possible remaining explosives from being remotely detonated. This turned out to be false as cellphone service was simply overwhelmed by the volume of calls in and out of Boston as loved ones on the scene frantically tried to let each other know they were ok.

A second, more remarkable feat in my opinion was a sharp curtailing of the noises coming from conspiracy theorists within hours of the attack. Before the end of Tuesday, witnesses were nipping in the bud theories about a mysterious "man on the roof" visible in pictures at the time of the blasts.

One unfortunate flub was an over-eager declaration by CNN that an arrest had been made on Wednesday but the cause of this error was otherwise old-school sources: “CNN had three credible sources on both local and federal levels. Based on this information we reported our findings. As soon as our sources came to us with new information we adjusted our reporting.”

Nowhere near as slow as a similar mis-communication 101 years ago, almost to the day of the events in Boston. After the sinking of the Titanic on April 15th, 1912, information came painfully slow over the days following as loved ones waited for news of survivors. In a tragic error, one telegram claiming that all passengers had been saved resulted in perhaps the cruelest redaction in news history. Both American and British papers had to later declare that in fact, more than half of those on board had been lost as all the conflicting reports were confirmed or denied.

Looking to recent history, there was no Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube on September 11th, 2001 and where in the years since, the internet has almost entirely fuled epic, contradictory conspiracy theories about the events of that day, it's reasonable to believe that a few well captured Instagrams would have stymied much of that nonsense before it coalesced.

Which in the end helps reinforce that dramatic role, as clearly displayed by the coverage the eye-witness generated material from Boston, and other large scale events like the the Arab Spring, social media now plays in the dissemination of news and images --also why the internet remains the greatest threat to totalitarian governments the world over...Syria, North K, I'm lookin' at you...

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