At the time of writing the explosions at the Boston Marathon are still fresh news journalistically….  Facts are still being established, no responsibility has been claimed, and investigations are still live and ongoing.

However in social media terms the story is old and long-standing.  With each new major event that happens in the world, new media plays a greater role in how different groups of people both learn of and react to it, and as in most extreme situations this brings out the very best and worst of human behaviour – we need some new rules, for our new times, to help people understand appropriate ways to respond, when the worst happens.  I can’t write these rules, but it’s worth proposing some guidelines for discussion:

DO use the immediacy of social media to relay word to people you know and the wider world.  Mobile networks quickly get overloaded, and often in a terror alert situation they will be shut down completely. Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley tweeted that he was OK and named others, corralled in the chaos but desperate to let their loved ones know they were safe.  The Boston police department used Twitter to confirm the explosion and post regular updates, and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency tweeted to get people to text rather than call on the overloaded cellular networks

DO follow hashtags created by those on the ground and in the midst of the action, who are often better informed than the traditional media companies. They are following the hashtags too, (such as #BostonMarathon, #PrayforBoston,) to get their own updates.

“Authorities have recognized that one the first places people go in events like this is to social media, to see what the crowd is saying about what to do next,”  Bill Braniff, Executive Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism was quoted as saying. “And today authorities went to Twitter and directed them to traditional media environments where authorities can present a clear calm picture of what to do next.”

This is important, as taking every bit of shared information at face value is a big DON’T in this situation.  Just because it’s on social media does not make it true!  A case in point is the image of a little girl running a completely different race in 2012, that was being shared all over the place along with reports that she had died in the explosions.

“How was I to know it wasn’t true?” one of my Facebook friends responded.  Well if you don’t know, and haven’t made time to check the facts before hitting share, then DON’T share it – because that is a real picture of a real little girl, who’s family and friends must be very distressed by it’s global circulation in this context.  Though not as distressed as the family of 8 year old Martin Richard, who was killed in the incident… the photo of him circulating on social media, holding a peace message, appears to be genuine, one can only hope it was shared consensually.

DON’T confuse conspiracy theories or prejudices – either your own or those of media voices with their own agendas – with news reportage.  Yes, there appears to have been a man on a roof.  Actually he was on a balcony frequently used by office workers in that building, and probably regarded as an excellent spot to watch the Marathon finishing line.  The Saudi student, identified by name by Fox News and spread all over the world, was interviewed by the FBI as a witness not a suspect.  And one of the most bonkers of all the images being circulated, the CCTV clip of someone apparently leaving a chemical distribution warehouse 15 miles from the explosion site, has been officially identified as being captured in Rutland, East Midlands in 2011!

Most of this stuff was shared on in all innocence by people who simply knew no better and didn’t bother to check their sources, I cannot begin to speculate about the motives of those creating the disinformation in the first place.  Nor the motives of those who tried to cash in on the tragedy by immediately registering the domains, and  Twitter also had to move fast to suspend a raft of fake Boston Marathon twitter accounts, some purporting to be collecting for victims.  So another rule is basically DON’T be an evil troll from hell

I have no real opinion about the people sharing prayers, candles and messages of support, provided they contain no images of children and so on, or some kind of exhortation that I am an evil person for not passing them on.  I don’t do so because it won’t help anyone if I do, won’t make me feel better, and could even be fueling the evils of ‘like farming’.  But social media provides new channels for the outpouring of public emotion, such as the death of an old lady in London last week that also aroused strong feelings from so many –it’s just expression of feelings and opinions, and that’s what social media is for.

To end on a more positive note though, on the day of the bombings social media came good overall – Google set up a ‘person finder’ system to help locate people, calls for blood donation were co-ordinated through Twitter, Boston locals shouted out online to open their doors to stranded runners and supporters needing a place to stay.  Individuals on the ground used online tools to reach out and support one another, alongside the first responders and investigators using them to work on the bigger picture.  The most memorable images shared that day were of people right in the middle of the action, rushing to help those who needed them.

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