President Obama on Social Media and the Boston Bombings-Lessons for the Rest of Us?

by admin on April 22, 2013


Http://LeonardSipes.Com and Http://MyLifeAudio.Com

There has been a healthy debate on this site and LinkedIn on the use of social media during emergencies. The discussion centers on two points:

  1. Social media has the potential of doing great damage during an emergency through the perpetuation of unverified rumors.
  2.  Others believe that  bad information released by social media will soon be self-corrected and the role of social media should not be criticized.

I created a series of articles on the topic at warning that the potential for un-repairable damage is enormous and that states and the federal government, business and organizations need to prepare.

I’m going to use the President’s recent remarks on the tragedy in Boston and include a summation of news clips and writings from previous articles on social media during emergencies to make a case for a new ethic of appropriateness as to what we do and say on social media.

And as long as the President is bringing it up, I will once again call for solutions as to what we in government could or should do about responding to social media based rumors.

President Obama’s Remarks:

The President delivered one of the best speeches of his career during a memorial service for the victims of this senseless tragedy, see .

President Obama’s remarks after capture of the fugitive Boston bombing suspect were once again excellent and on-point but I was intrigued  by his remarks about the use of social media during the incident. He said:

“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions.  But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right.” 

“That’s why we have investigations.  That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.  That’s why we have courts.  And that’s why we take care not to rush to judgment — not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people.”

My emphasis added. See .

It’s simply too early to debate the appropriateness of individuals hunting for the bombers through groups searching video but what’s not open to debate is a dedication to accuracy as to public statements we make during a time of tragedy.

Three Examples of Social and Mainstream Media Issues During the Boston Bombings:

1. Should Media Wait for Official Confirmation Before Reporting on Suspects?

After major news media mistakes in reporting identifications of suspects and other major elements of breaking stories like the Boston Marathon bombings and the Newtown school massacre, “we may be reaching a point where news organizations  need to wait for absolutely official confirmation — either a press conference or a statement,” media blogger Erik Wemple of the Washington Post says on CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Guests on the program discussed the erroneous reporting by many news outlets that a suspect had been arrested last Wednesday, and in at least one case that the second suspect had died last Friday. Of the New York Post’s publishing a front-page photo headlined “Bag Men” of people who turned out not to be suspects in the marathon bombing, CNN host Howard Kurtz said, “I think it was deliberate. It was premeditated. It was not something based on a source that turned out to be wrong.”


2. Police Scanners in Boston Featured on Twitter With No Context

In the hunt for two terrorists in Boston that ended Friday, news organizations were scolded for irresponsible reporting and employed to relay information to the public, sometimes at the same news conference, says the New York Times. On Friday, the authorities thanked news media outlets for spreading the word that Bostonians should take shelter, and cautioned them against repeating secondhand or thinly sourced information.

The tension of the day played out on Twitter, where seemingly every utterance from police scanners was repeated, often without any context. Twitter users urged one another not to share what they were hearing on the scanners, and audio feeds on at least two scanner Web sites were taken offline temporarily. On Friday night, as word spread that the second suspect had been spotted, more than 250,000 people were simultaneously tuned to a Ustream rebroadcast of a scanner.

3. New York Times

Crowdsourcing the Marathon Probe: Was It Helpful or Mob Rule?

In an era of digital interactivity, the hunt for the bombers behind the deadly Boston Marathon attacks unfolded around the U.S. from the desks of ordinary people, the Associated Press reports. Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4Chan, smartphones and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detective as police searched for men who turned out to be Chechen brothers who had immigrated from southern Russia years ago.

As amateur online sleuths began identifying possible culprits, people were wrongly accused or placed under suspicion by crowdsourcing. It showed the damage that digital investigators can cause. “The FBI kind of opened the door,” said Hanson Hosein of the University of Washington Master of Communication in Digital Media program. “It was almost like it was put up as challenge to them, and they rose to it. They can be either really helpful or mob rule.”

Associated Press/Christian Science Monitor

Source for the news clips: .

Previous Discussions on Social Media During Emergencies:

This is not my first article on the subject.

I have personally administered the public affairs response to dozens of major incidents.

Please let me make one thing clear from the beginning; I love social media and I believe that the future of communications is social. I believe that social media will be an integral part of the next major emergency in the US and we need to know how to handle it.

There are Five Major Social Media Points to Consider During Emergencies:

Emergencies are often multi-day events rapidly taking place in multiple places (think Katrina or coordinated acts of terrorism).

Emergency public affairs responders will be taxed to the limit as to keeping up with “mainstream” media and getting the word out to the public.

Processing hundreds of thousands (millions?) of social media comments is simply beyond the abilities of any organization.

It’s inevitable that there will be thousands of misinformed or malicious posts.

Government and nonprofit public affairs response capabilities are being cut, not expanded.

Past Comments from the Emergency Management Community:

As stated, some suggested that social media automatically corrects bad information based on reports from mainstream media. Well, that assumes that mainstream media is monitoring social media and setting the record straight. Mainstream media was heavily criticized for mistaken reporting during this event.

For those not in the business let me assure you that newsrooms have undergone a cut of 30 percent and more during the last ten years. Like government and nonprofits, they are doing more with less.

There is research from Pew that media do not read and respond to their own posts through social media.  Essentially, for the media, it’s a one-way form of communication.

Second: Others agree with me that it’s a major problem in search of a solution.

Third: Some took me to task (very nicely) about the public affairs community’s reluctance to engage in social media which may have some validity “but” it’s not due to indifference, it’s due to staffing.

Fourth: Still others feel that the social media community will be a plus and my concerns are greatly overblown.  So that assumes that everyone with a Facebook account has everyone’s best interest in mind?  No people with mental illness, no sex offenders, no one engaged in fraud? Please!


The best possible solution is an ethic of appropriateness as to what we both do and say on social media doing troublesome times. We should have  statements prepared ahead of time asking for restraint released at the beginning of any major emergency.

Most of us would not dream of slandering a race or religion or ethnic group; it’s inherently and morally  wrong and the pushback from social media would be overwhelming. We need to have the same ethic during emergencies.

Equally alarming is placing unconfirmed rumors via social. We need to develop an ethos where we realize that rumors can have major negative and ethically unjust consequences for many.

The best solution came from one commenter who suggested that FEMA or a corporate entity create a social media response structure solely dedicated to analyzing social media traffic, distilling the basic messages (i.e., thousands are falsely urging people in Happy Valley to flee because of an impending dam break) and getting the information to the public affairs team so they can correct misinformation or confirm good information.

If done by a corporation, then obviously states and local entities will pay a fee to belong.

Does anyone believe that in this day and age of  budget cuts that FEMA will ever develop this capacity?  FEMA would need to administer the process on the behalf of all of us, but it simply will never have the funds necessary to staff hundreds of tech and social media savvy people and administer the communications process.


Social media “will” be a major ingredient during every major emergency.

We are “not” prepared for the consequences.

We need good suggestions.

Best, Len.

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