The Effects of Social Media in the Wake of Boston Marathon Bombing

June 4, 2013
As the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear the extent of influence social media has on our world today. Although the speed at which information is shared caused an inundation of false reporting and vitriolic accusations to flood in, it also perpetuated an outpouring of kindness and generosity in the aftermath of this terrible event.

It didn't take long after the catastrophic incident on April 15 for cyber vigilantes on the internet to gather to find information about the suspected perpetrators. Much of the tips and information sharing turned into speculation, with both the internet and national news sources reporting false and even biased statements. CNN, at one point, informed audiences about a suspect awaiting arrest in custody, before having to retract such statements mere moments later. Many also cried foul over the stereotypical portrayal of the alleged bombers. According to news site The Chronicle of Higher Education, "before the suspects were named in the twin blasts, several young men, mostly South Asian or Middle Eastern, were convicted in the court of public opinion. A Saudi Arabian national who was injured in the blast and then questioned by the police was erroneously labeled a person of interest by several news outlets...Those stories joined other episodes after the bombing, in which South Asians and Arabs were reportedly assaulted" (Berrett). Some also believe that, because the Tsarnaev brothers were Muslim, "terrorism and Islam [are] interchangeable. This wave of fervor also led to innocent people being accused of violent actions, as users on forums like reddit and 4chan churned out dubious theories of who the suspected bombers were, and names flooded through the internet. In addition, major news sources like The New York Post picked up on such online guesswork and printed in bold captions on the front page of their newspaper, "Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon", written over an image of two young men wearing backpacks, with one sporting a baseball cap. In fact, neither of the two males had anything to do with the bombings. One of the boys depicted in the picture, Salah Eddin Barhoum, 17, is so distraught over the hateful online comments he has received because of the misunderstanding that he is scared to go to school ("Teen Stunned," n.d.). Journalism and news reporting erupted into a competition over who could find information faster, instead of who could provide the most accurate and instructive resources to audiences. But when quantity is emphasized over quality, severe consequences can transpire, and innocent people's lives are disrupted and even endangered. Those who appear different from the rest, or follow diverging beliefs, are punished for who they are. Intolerance and ignorance may easily seep into society, encouraging prejudice and discrimination.

While negative consequences have arisen from misinformation and hearsay, social media has also played a pivotal and positive role in providing care and aid for those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing. Stories of generosity and cooperation have come through because of people's willingness to put the needs of others over their own. Countless runners and civilians alike rushed through the chaotic crowds to help those injured and frightened. Over Twitter, Facebook, and other online outlets, people recounted the kindness offered to them from strangers following the frightening and frenzied situation. On Twitter, Ali Hatfield, a runner from Kansas City, gratefully told of the couple who invited her and her friends to stay at their home as she struggled to reach her hotel after the pandemonium. Google docs were formed, as people offered up shelter and transportation to those in need of provisions after the explosion. It has since been shared with and added to by thousands of users (Hartogs).

While the Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing chaotic events displayed the capacity for hatred and violence in society, the surge of compassion and aid from people not only in Boston, but also around the country and the world, has shown that mankind is not failing or faltering in the aftermath of a brutal tragedy. Instead, around disaster, humanity proves its ability to hope for, care about, and help others in need. Following the explosion in Boston, comedian Patton Oswalt's Facebook reaction may affirm what many feel right now. The viral statement, shared almost 300,000 times, contains the excerpt: "If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out...Every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness. But the vast majority stands against that darkness...So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, 'The good outnumber you, and we always will'" (Oswalt). Following the Newtown shooting in 2012, the late Mr. Rogers, said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world" (Blacklow).

In times of madness and brutality, humanity must not congregate to point fingers at those who are marginalized and different, but instead, unite to challenge the hatred spread by those who perpetuate such evils. Social media has proven that, when utilized correctly, it can bring people together for a common cause.

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