Boston Globe via Getty Images
People on Boylston Street check mobile devices for news of the explosions near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
The personal and the professional crossed paths Monday afternoon for Brooke Fisher Liu, who studies risk and crisis communication as an affiliated faculty member with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism.
After two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, she watched on her computer screen as some of her friends and family members in the Boston area began to post messages.
"I certainly saw what we see in these disasters," she said, which were messages to let loved ones know, "'I'm okay, I'm safe' or 'I need a place to sleep.'"
Much has changed since 9/11, when just 1 percent of Americans learned of the terror attacks from the Internet and cell phones had few of the capabilities most have today. Over the last decade, social media and the ubiquity of smartphones — now used by nearly half of all Americans — have given news organizations, law enforcement officials and the public more information to work with as a crisis unfolds.
In the hours after twin explosions blew out windows and injured scores of runners and spectators in Boston on Monday, news organizations relied heavily on media from bystanders who captured some of the first images from the scene. Media outlets like the Boston Globe and The Daily Beast used Storify, which gathers information posted to social media sites, to supplement their coverage of the story as it developed. Raw videos, like the one below, taken by runner Jennifer Treacy — who was approaching the finish line, camera rolling, when a blast shook the street — made their way onto national news sites.
And as of Tuesday afternoon, 5,400 Boston-related records had been submitted to Google People Finder, an online message board developed by the company’s crisis response team in 2010 to help people searching for friends and family after the Haiti earthquake gather information about their whereabouts.
“It seems like there’s a new platform everyday,” said Jim Lukaszewski, a crisis management and media consultant who’s lectured on the media and terrorism. “I think clearly social media is and will continue to play an extraordinarily important role in events like this, whether it’s the Carnival disaster or — name your disaster.”
In February, when a fire in the engine room of the Carnival Triumph blew out power through much of the ship, stranding thousands of passengers at sea, stories of conditions on board leaked out through a stream of photos and videos posted to the web via smartphones.
When a much graver tragedy stuck Newtown, Conn. months earlier, both the flow of information between the public and law enforcement officials and the flow of financial contributions to the grieving community moved swiftly through the Internet. In the first days after the Newtown Memorial Fund was launched, its founder estimated that it was receiving $2,000 every hour in online contributions.
In addition to mobilizing philanthropic efforts, social media and smartphones have been and continue to be important tools for investigators. Law enforcement officials called on members of the public Tuesday to bring forward any photos or videos captured at Monday’s marathon that may help them track down the person or people behind the deadly attack.
“There’s no drawback in asking people for information,” Liu said. “It also gives people something to do to help. People are often shocked and want to do something as opposed to just being sad.”
With cell phone service in Boston overwhelmed Monday afternoon, as it was in the wake of 9/11, online media and messaging also provided a crucial means of communication to those who couldn’t get through by phone.
More than 11 years ago, many people looking for their loved ones after the Twin Towers were attacked resorted to posting flyers on walls and street lights, asking anyone with information to call.
Lee Ielpi, the president and co-founder of the 9/11 Families' Association, first got word of the 2001 attack from his son, a firefighter who died at Ground Zero, who called to let him know about the first reports coming across an internal radio. Ielpi recalled that, at the time, many people were relying on direct phone calls to gather information.
He sees the new avenues of information sharing that have developed since then as a double-edged sword.
"People get it all on their phones, which in a sense is good," he said. "People have to understand when there's an attack." But he adds that the new media also spreads anxiety, particularly before concrete details are available.
What struck Ielpi, even more than the speed with which information traveled about the Boston blasts however, was the speed with which law enforcement officials sprang into action, as if thoughts of terrorism were at the front of their minds.
"It's interesting, watching the uniformed people, how quickly they react to it now," he said, pointing out that in certain photos you can see that police had their weapons drawn in the seconds after the blast.
"It's a bit scary to think about it, but this is the way we have to live now," he said. "We have to be prepared for these events."