Communications are key to the success of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Accurate information disseminated to the general public, to elected officials and community leaders, as well as to the media, reduces risk, saves lives and property, and speeds recovery. The emergence of new media like the Internet, e-mail, blogs, text messaging, cell phone photos, and the increasing influence of first informers are redefining the roles of government and media.
The importance of social media became apparent following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Originally published in Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World, George Haddow and Kim Haddow present a case study on the Boston Police Department and social media.
At 2:45pm on April 15, 2013 two bombs exploded near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring 264. The first reports about the terrorist attack were spread through Twitter and Facebook. By 4:30pm, there were more than 700,000 mentions on Twitter of the “Boston Marathon” (Stern, 2013). While television was the most widely-use source of information, social media shaped the story and the response. 49% of Americans kept up with news and information online or via mobile device and 25% used social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook for information about the explosions and subsequent manhunt. From the instant the bombs detonated until the eventual capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, social media provided immediate access to the most up-to-date information. It allowed the public to play an active role in the identification and hunt for the terrorist suspects. The grand-scale dissemination of photos also assisted in the identification of the two suspects. Following gunfight and subsequent manhunt, Boston Police Department announced via Twitter that they had captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Marathon runners gave personalized accounts on Facebook, while law enforcement officials disseminated real-time updates and solicited assistance in identifying and capturing the suspects. The Boston Globe’s homepage was transformed into a live blog that populated Tweets from Boston authorities. Social media proved itself to be an indispensable tool during a time of crisis. Boston PD provided a phone number for friends and family who were looking for Marathon runners and/or spectators. When service became inundated, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent a tweet suggesting that people use text messaging. Google also joined the efforts, setting up its Person Finder website to assist individuals with finding and communicating with loved ones. Twitter was also used to instruct the people of Boston how to remain safe. The platform was also used to keep police officers safe, gently reminding users to not broadcast police tactical positions and/or live videos of officers.
The rapid dissemination of information is a double-edged sword – great for mass communication, not-so-great when inaccurate, unverified information is quickly spread. Boston Police Department set a new standard for government communications during a disaster — using social media to inform, correct inaccurate information, to lead, and to listen to the public conversation. As a Boston police officer eloquently stated, “We don’t break the news. We are the news.”