Harnessing the power of social media in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy

Gilana Levavi ('14)/Eastside Opinions Editor

Social media is arguably the most powerful force that has emerged in the last decade. The aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings illustrates this point perhaps more clearly than ever. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, a quarter of Americans got information about the explosions and the search for the bombers through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. For young people, this statistic was much greater: 56 percent of people ages 18-29 used social media to follow the aftermath of the explosions.

Rather than relying on traditional news sources such as newspapers and television, more and more people are getting their news from amateur reporters who are posting and re-posting on social media sites. And more and more often, individual members of the public are participating in the process of spreading news, proliferating a new form of journalism that has been growing steadily since the advent of the Internet. There can definitely be many benefits to this trend, as, for example, first-hand accounts from those at the scene of the incident are able to spread quickly and widely.

Unfortunately, though, the use of social media as a news source can breed cruel consequences. In the aftermath of the Boston tragedy rumors fiercely spread on Reddit as well as other social media sites, which wrongly implicated several individuals as suspects. One who was wrongly implicated was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing since March. These rumors cast a family already suffering greatly since their son’s disappearance into the harsh grasp of public scrutiny.

With so many already suffering from the direct impact of the horrific bombings, why create more strife? The implication of Tripathi represents the witch-hunt social phenomenon that has existed since the beginning of time. When people experience a tragedy, they seek out individuals to blame. Social media sites such as Reddit, which allows users to post anonymously and quickly spread information, simply make it easier for this phenomenon to occur and expand its impact. Social media has not created this problem; it has only made faster, more accessible and more widespread.

Although we often look at social media trends as products of society, the truth is that information on these sites originates from individuals, and is spread by individuals. If more individuals thought critically before posting or reposting information, and if more individuals thought critically about how they can use social media for good, together, a collective difference, based in individual actions, can be made. Take for example the “Help us find Sunil Tripathi” facebook page, created by Tripathi’s family. After he was implicated, they asked for messages of support, and many responded with kind words.

Earlier this week, Tripathi’s body was discovered near Providence, Rhode Island. Though the cause of death has not yet definitively identified, it seems that he died some time ago. In response, his family wrote on the facebook page,

“This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too. Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”

Although social media is relatively new, these common sense moral principles are not. If we let these attributes—compassion and thoughtfulness—guide our online actions too, we can harness the power of social media for good.