In times of crisis, particularly global crisis, social media can be both boon and bane. This fact could not have been more apparent during the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13. Social networks quickly became information hubs as traditional news outlets and social sites fed off of each other’s sources.
Fortunately, a common danger introduced by social media-cum-news sources – the disclosure of police officer locations, usually via photo or video – was minimal or nonexistent on November 13. (This is a particularly potent risk when live events involve terrorist groups active on social media, like the Islamic State.) However, an important downside of the diverse, almost instantaneous proliferation of news across social media during the Paris attacks quickly emerged via the initial dissemination of misinformation.
Of course, incorrect sites of bombings/gunfire, false reports of the potential identities of attackers, and unfounded speculations are not new trends, and indeed often spark needless chaos in an already exceedingly chaotic scene. Recall after the Boston bombings in the U.S. in 2013, photos of “suspects” circulated social media when, in fact, they were images of innocent people ripped from photos of the Boston marathon. And in the wake of the Paris attacks, reports were to quick to invalidate photos that circulated across Twitter incorrectly labeling people terrorists, as well as old images of rallies in Paris that misled users to think gatherings of solidarity were occurring shortly after the attacks.
But, of course, the upside to social media’s pervasiveness is instant access to live news and, as illustrated during the Paris attacks, the ability for those in the center of the crisis to broadcast their safety, as well as for observers to offer safety to those seeking it. Hashtags abounded on social media last Friday offering refuge to those in need in Paris, particularly travelers in the city who found themselves without shelter that night. Facebook check-ins allowed individuals in the French capital to post their safe statuses to family and friends around the world.
However, almost as quickly as you could change your profile picture to one with a sheer French flag overlay, critics of social media reactions were quick to voice their dismay, notably at how reactions to the Paris attacks had swiftly blotted out coverage of the two suicide bombings that killed over 40 people in Beirut the previous day. And therein lies the biggest benefit to social media in times of crisis, perhaps – the diverse, if often overwhelming expressions of international rage, grief, solidarity, criticism, etc. For better or worse, social media is a permanent fixture in information-sharing on a global scale, and will remain so.