Social Media and Tragedy

The good and bad of relying on social media in a time of tragedy.

by Hollie McAfee, Assistant Marketing Director, April 16, 2013

“Hoping no friends in MA. are in danger..”

This was the status of one of my Facebook friends, and that’s how I found out that there had been two explosions near the finish line of yesterday’s Boston Marathon.  When I read it, I knew something had happened, and searched the news sites to find out the story.  When I was young, the public was alerted to tragedy by breaking news reports, if we happened to have our radios and televisions turned on.  If not, friends and family would call us on the telephone.  Now, with constant access to Facebook and Twitter on our computers and mobile phones, we can learn almost instantly when a disaster strikes.

While I was watching the news on the television with my teenaged children, my daughter was telling me stories she was reading on Twitter.  As the news anchor was telling us that there were reportedly 2 confirmed deaths but the identities had not been released, people were retweeting a fake picture of an 8 year old girl who was running in the marathon to honor Sandy Hook Elementary School children and had died in the explosion.  There was another concocted story of a man who planned to propose to his girlfriend at the finish line, but was killed before he got the chance.  Some brand new Twitter accounts popped up and started tweeting that they would donate $1 to the Boston Marathon victims for every retweet.  While most decent American citizens were still trying to figure out what was going on, some others jumped on the opportunity to exploit the tragedy for their own benefit.

Why would someone make up a story to pull at our heartstrings like this?  As a social media marketer, I know that it’s important to post things that people like to share.  The more people who share our content, the more connections we make to potential customers.  We do this in a professional manner and do not exploit our connections, but that is not the case with these new accounts that are making up provocative stories and urging you to share them.  Every time you share or retweet, these people are collecting your information to use in the future.  Even if you never fall for a request to donate money, simply by sharing one of these stories on your news feed, and by default encouraging your friends to share as well, you are providing your name and any other public information on your profiles to potential criminals.

Social media, when used well, can be a tremendous benefit in times like these.  A quick status update by a resident of Boston yesterday must have provided a huge relief to loved ones.  Officials can update the public quickly with safety instructions.  But, be careful what you believe.  Always double check a story before sharing.  Never click on a link in a post, as it could download a harmful virus to your computer or smart phone.  Always search reliable news sources for your information.  Expose any false stories and alert your friends.

Our prayers are with the victims of this terrible tragedy.