Social Media: Changing Coverage of Mass Casualty Events

By Caitlyn Thompson

It is interesting to note the role social media has played in the wake of the Paris Attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino. In addition to spreading information about the events, social media has allowed individuals to declare their safety, offer support, and grieve collectively. Social media has played an increasingly important role in handling with mass casualty events, but has only recently grown to such great popularity. It begs the question of how different the coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks would have been if social media were around during this time to the extent it is today.

“Learning about what’s going on immediately [through the use of social media] can eliminate chaotic fear that’s associated with not knowing and always assuming the worst,” Jacqueline Avola argues. “Terrorism is scary, but knowing what’s happening is best because not knowing can be even more terrifying.” However, not everyone agrees that social media can be beneficial in moments of crisis. Some people see that having information at the touch of a button can be invasive and harmful during mass casualty events. In order to understand both sides of the argument, one first needs to understand how social media has grown to the giant it is today.

Above: New York Times website on 9/11/2001, 4/15/2013, and 11/13/2015.

In 2001, social media, and even the Internet, was a non-factor when it came to news coverage. While news outlets did publish content to their websites, the Internet was not as easily accessible. Most users depended on dial-up connection, which could take a considerable amount of time to load. Once you were online, loading webpages could also take a lengthy amount of time. This is nothing compared to the high-speed internet connections many of us enjoy today. Another huge factor was access to a computer. Laptops were just starting to become popular and WiFi was just making its debut, meaning that in order to access the internet, users would have to be at a desktop computer either in their homes or office. Televisions would have been much more accessible, which is why network coverage, rather than Internet coverage, was championed.

Today, television news, local and cable, continues to lose viewership, as the Internet becomes an increasingly popular outlet for news. According to the PEW Research center, 75% of Internet users feel that they are better informed about national news. One of the biggest reason behind this is the increase of portable devices with access to the Internet, including laptops, tablets, and smart phones. News stations contribute just as much, if not more, content to their websites as they do in their broadcasts. Finally, social media has developed as a major outlet for news, especially breaking news. Currently, about 74 percent of all internet users use some sort of social media sites.

The scope of the Internet and social media is seemingly unlimited. The night of the Paris Attacks, the Assumption Women’s Club Basketball Team was in a van traveling through Vermont. Amber Edwards recalls, “We were all just giggling then one of the girls in the back of the van spoke up and said, ‘If anyone knows anyone traveling abroad, you should probably check on them. There’s an attack in Paris.’ Next thing you know, everyone’s on Twitter learning about the attacks just as fast as people in France were learning about them. It’s crazy.”

So, just exactly how different would coverage of the 9/11 attacks have been if social media existed as it does today? Sarah Johansson, who recently completed her undergraduate thesis Uses of Twitter and Citizen Journalism: A Comparison of Press Reaction to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks and the Boston Marathon Bombings, believes that social media in 2001 would have been both beneficial and horrific. Johansson asserts that one of the most beneficial aspects of social media is the ability to get information out quickly.

“Tweets about the attacks definitely could have helped provide those inside of the towers information as to what was happening. Instead of having to rely on calling jammed emergency lines to learn information the outside world already knew, they could have just checked their Twitter. These people would have been able to decide their own plans of actions before waiting for information that never came.”

Facebook recently launched a check-in option to their website which was used during the Paris Attacks.
Facebook recently launched a check-in option to their website which was used during the Paris Attacks.

Social media has no doubt allowed information to be spread at incredibly rates. Katie Kelley believes that another great use of social media the ability to contact a great number of people with a single post. “Survivors from the towers and surrounding areas could have posted that they’re safe for loved ones to see within minutes instead of waiting for hours nervous and scared, just as Facebook allowed users to do after the Paris terrorist attacks.”

Diana Waterman is not so sure that she would have liked firsthand accounts from inside of the towers. She argues, “Learning about 9/11 after the incident was much more helpful than if we had the gory details on the incident as it was happening. This allowed for a lot more processing and gave adults time to come up with answers to calm children who were scared after the incident. Having access to the progression of the attacks as a child would have been overwhelming and frightening.”

From a very young age, children are allowed to access the Internet, which can be extremely difficult to filter. When 9/11 happened, Waterman and other people her age remember hearing about the event from parents, who had an easy time controlling what their children were exposed to. Parents could easily turn off the television. But how can they turn off what their children are seeing on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram?

Above: Google Image search for 9/11 and Boston Marathon Bombings. Notice graphic images in the latter, made possible due to smartphones.

It is also difficult to filter social media in regards to what information is being posted. Johansson discussed that while the upside of Twitter is that people can post anything about an event, the downside is that they can post anything about an event. In moments of crisis, it is just as easy for facts to circulate as it is for rumors. Misinformation could cause more hysteria and worry in a mass casualty event, which ultimately can be more helpful than harmful to social media users.

In addition to misinformation, the images circulated on social media are also extremely difficult to filter. “If I had seen graphic images from inside the World Trade Center or read the last posts of people awaiting their certain deaths,” Nicole Damaschi expresses, “I don’t think I’d be able to handle it. I wouldn’t want to see that in my newsfeed for months to come.”

Of course, there is no way to prove how 9/11 would have been different if we had the social media to the extent that we do today. Individuals can only speculate the benefits and the harm social media may have caused on that horrific day. However, looking back on this day reminds us about how far we’ve come in the coverage of news events, and forces us to wonder when social media may become too invasive. Hopefully, the world will someday cease to have these mass casualty events. But for now, the social media debate lives on.

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