Is Social Media Harmful During a National Crisis?

by Ron Vitale

After a long day in which police went door to door searching homes for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, I listened to officials in the Boston area tell the public that they were opening the subway, roads and allowing people back out on the street. Minutes later I watched in horror as shots rang out in Watertown and the hunt for Dzhokar Tsarnaev continued. On my TV, I watched as helpless news anchors talked about what they knew, realizing that none of them had the power of Twitter at their disposal.

News Truly Is at the Speed of Light

With my laptop on, I started searching on Twitter and within minutes I saw reports from people in Watertown filling up my tweet stream. Were these reports true or false? It was tough to say, but I think I knew about 15-20 minutes before national news that Dzhokar Tsarnaev was holed up in a boat on Franklin Street:


With the internet, people started using Google maps to post satellite pictures of the house and the boat in the backyard. Gone are the days in which onsite reporting of the type we had last night matters. Anderson Cooper might as well have been in Europe because the news on CNN was out of date to what was happening in real time on the web. CNN and NBC desperately tried to get confirmation from officials that the suspect had been found but they lagged woefully behind what everyone already knew on Twitter.

Granted I had not confirmation that the tweets that I were seeing were true, but I started seeing reports about flash bangs going off and a good while later the TV anchors talked about the same thing. I also knew about the thermal imaging from the helicopter and how it was used to find the suspect and saw that many of the tweets were coming directly from what people were hearing via the online police scanners. Much of the tweets I saw were right on the money, but I had to ask myself: Was this good?

What About People's Safety?

I wasn't the only person worried about what was taking place in Watertown and how people on Twitter were communicating that to the rest of the world. @gwynnek made a good point: People were tweeting what they heard from police scanners and there was no way to tell how giving that information out might aid the suspect or those who might have been working with him:


What unfolded quickly on Twitter amazed me as I watched the hunt and capture of one of the Boston Marathon suspects take place on live television. But that's where the darker side of social media crept in. In order to spread the news, be the first one "in the know," people continued to tweet direct quotes from local police scanners and it soon became apparent that hundreds of thousands of people were listening to the online scanners:


And no matter how many times local TV stations urged the public to not report what was being broadcast on the police scanners, people tweeted more and more of what they heard.


I'll ask it again: Was that a good thing? Did being cool and sharing out what the police were saying on the radio do more harm than good? I can only imagine what police, the FBI and Homeland Security must think about this latest fad with the public wanting to participate in the real time chase and capture of a suspect. What we know is very little: It is alleged that two brothers worked together and set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon, but there are many questions still unanswered. Did the brothers have help? Could other sleeper cells be listening in to the news and twitter chatter last night to learn from the event?

We Are Helping Our Enemies

I love social media, I truly do. I've been on Twitter since April 2008 and have seen many wonderful uses of Twitter, but I have to say that last night was a much darker side. Anyone who wishes to harm our country simply needs to listen in on last night's chatter and learn about the online police scanners, learn of the position of the police from the public and could have easily mislead the public by spreading false rumors through social channels. The genie is out of the bottle. I get that. I know that there is no turning back and I also understand that many using Twitter do not have the maturity to understand the power of the tool that they are using and how they could be assisting criminals.

We live in a world in which we are the judge and jury all at the same time. We can participate in a live event and spread our thoughts out to the world while it's unfolding. I saw many tweets similar to the one below in which angry people wanted the suspect's head. But we don't know all the facts, many people were wounded and people lost their lives. We're angry, we want revenge, but we also need to take a step back--unless we want to go back to the era of the Roman Colosseum. Does anyone wonder why the Hunger Games was so popular? Truly we're not too far from those books.


Whose Fault Is it?

I remember watching the OJ Simpson chase and how my friends and I were all glued to the TV. Now it's a totally different world. With Twitter, we can be snarky, a jokester, spread the word and make other comments all in real time with anyone in the world. Maybe it's already happening, but I'm waiting for the next crisis to have the suspect tweeting back to the world.

I believe that tweeting out police scanner information during a crisis in which people's lives are at stake is flat out wrong. I'd suggest that the online scanners be taken down during such an emergency. Flip that switch off. We don't truly know how we might be aiding criminals by sharing out information or helping our overseas enemies plan their next attack on us. In the end, as with many things in life, it comes down to personal responsibility. Each person needs to take responsibility for his or her own actions. And unfortunately, from people's behaviors on Twitter last night, we're in for one hell of a bumpy ride.