Social media play growing role in spreading word of tragedy

USA TODAY, July 20, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

The tweets came in soon after a gunman opened fire in a crowded Colorado movie theater.

I’m safe. I survived. I made it out.

They’re the words of witnesses poured out over social-media sites telling the world in the quickest way possible that they were alive. As people continue to turn to such sites during emergencies, the potential for more organized methods of online conversations — such as 911 for Twitter — remains an area ripe for development, social-media experts said.

Jessica Payne, 31, of Boston, learned of the shooting while reading a Facebook post by her brother, Kenneth Payne, 33, who lives in Aurora, Colo.

“He said to all those who’ve asked, I didn’t attend the Batman showing,” she said. “Seeing that post was all I needed. The message was clear. He was fine.”

Payne immediately wrote back that she was happy he was safe. She knew that he, like many others, took to Facebook to calm the concerns of family and friends.

Moments later, she began searching Google and came across news reports and blog posts detailing the shooting. Then came screen shots of tweets from terrified people describing the chaos.

“I know I saw one man with blood running down his hands being carried into a cop car,” said one tweet.

Another: “Someone just shot up this Batman movie. I literally just seen a little girl get carried out with bullet wounds.”

Eager to let friends and family know of the shooting, Payne posted a story on her Facebook page.

“People continue to turn to social media in times of crisis because they know it’s highly available,” said Payne, a digital strategist. “They understand that it is the quickest, most reliable way to get information to their friends and family.”

The Red Cross used Twitter to urge people who were in the theater to use social media to alert friends and family that they are safe. Spokeswoman Patricia Billinger recommended that area residents update their Facebook and other social-media accounts to let their friends know they are safe.

Billinger said that during all the uncertainty about who was at what showing of the popular movie, taking that extra step will help reassure family and friends.

“People don’t know how close you were, so help alleviate that anxiety,” she said.

While online spaces for emergency conversations naturally develop, the Red Cross’ push to organize and encourage communication illustrates the potential for social-media disaster plans.

“I think we’ll see a lot more development around smarter ways to use social media in emergency situations,” said William Ward, a social-media professor at Syracuse University. “Maybe we need some type of hash tag for emergency purposes only in the same way people use 911.”

Meanwhile, using social media is increasingly easier than calling or texting multiple family members to quell worries, experts said. In most cases, you can reach more people and avoid tying up cellular networks and call centers.

After the shooting in Aurora, sharing on such sites also went beyond witnesses’ personal circles and allowed people across the world to share in the emotions and get firsthand stories.

“It’s very personal,” said Janet Sternberg, a communication and media studies professor at Fordham University. “It’s unfiltered. The emotions are very real, and that is very attractive to people. We want to know how other people are doing.”

While there’s no question future tragedies will continue to play out on social-media sites, some caution that witnesses and survivors of events must move past communicating just online.

Melinda Payne, a resident psychiatrist at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in New York, said survivors of Friday’s shooting will need to rely on personal conversations and in-person interactions with others to process their trauma.

It’s dangerous to use social media as the sole means of expressing emotions because the experience can lack authenticity, she said.

“I would use whatever community structures exist to help the survivors,” Payne said.

Contributing: Trevor Hughes in Aurora