Thursday 18 December 2014

Miriam Donohoe: Cyber surfing to the heart of a nightmare

Published 17/04/2013 | 17:00

An injured woman is attended to at the scene of an explosion at the Boston Marathon

WATCHING the carnage unfold minute by minute at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday night was akin to having a front-row seat to a nightmare drama.

Unlike previous disasters, especially in the case of 9/11, the main information channel on the Boston explosions wasn't television or traditional media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online forums provided a digital timeline of eyewitness accounts, video and photos from the bomb site.

Thousands and thousands of updates were posted by Bostonians, marathon runners, victims, relief workers, and visitors for one of the city's biggest days of the year – Marathon Day and Patriots' Day.

An analysis of Twitter posts showed more than 1.5 million tweets mentioning the term 'Boston' had been posted by 9.30pm Irish time, over an hour after the blasts had happened and news of the incidents had gone viral.

It felt eerily like having a part as an extra in a horror movie as mobile and smartphone video and social media brought us right to the centre of the disaster zone, with panic, blood and images of injured people everywhere.

I was watching a BBC 'Panorama' programme on North Korea when I checked Twitter on my iPhone to see what comments were being tweeted on that programme. To my horror, I saw postings to the #Boston hashtag with the worst-possible news. The celebratory atmosphere of the final stages of the world's oldest and most prestigious road race had been destroyed by an evil act.

For the next three hours, I kept up to date with events via Twitter on my iPhone, YouTube and other social-media sites on my iPad, whilst hopping from Sky News to CNN, BBC and RTE.

As the night wore on, social media and online beat the traditional broadcast outlets with updates time and time again. The tragic news that an eight-year-old boy – the son of one of the marathon runners – lost his life broke on Twitter.

The website Boston.Com posted dramatic video of the exact moment of the blast supplied by a citizen journalist as runners were crossing the finishing line. You could hear the screaming and sense the panic as people started to react to the unthinkable happening around them. That video did not appear on Sky until an hour later.

I remember watching the Twin Towers massacre unfolding on television on September 11, 2001. That was pre-smart phone and tablet days, when online newspaper content was in its infancy. The world was kept updated from 'ground zero' through radio and television reports. One Irish journalist did a live running commentary from the room of his apartment for RTE Radio for over an hour.

That has all changed now. In its short history, social media has proven its use at covering disasters, with media organisations using citizen mobile phone footage and social media postings to help tell fast moving stories. Whenever a disaster occurs nowadays, we are guaranteed someone will be there connected to a social network with a mobile device providing instant updates.

Thanks to social media, we know what it's like to be swept away in a hurricane, thanks to footage from Hurricane Sandy and Haiti. We know what it's like to be in an earthquake, thanks to footage from Christchurch in New Zealand. We have a good idea of the impact of a nuclear accident thanks to footage from Japan. And we now know what's it like to be caught in the middle of a bomb blast because of what we saw from Boston.

But as well as keeping the world informed Twitter, Facebook and YouTube has come into its own as an invaluable civic tool in time of crisis, being used to help in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

It was reassuring on Monday night to see Irish people relaying via social media messages to their families back at home that they were safe. Embassies and local emergency services were able to post information and advice and help line numbers to people seeking news of their loved ones. The Google Person Finder was activated.

The less of the fall-out from disasters and senseless acts that there are to be shared around the world the better of course. But we all have a ringside seat now, no matter where they happen.

Irish Independent

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