Top 5 Social Media and Communication Learnings from Boston Marathon Bombing

April 17, 2013

Todd Piett

It’s always risky to publish initial reactions before all the details have shaken out, but I find it’s important to record learnings before the impression fades, and while the urgency to improve is top of mind. With that, here’s my Top 5 social media and communication learnings (and not-so-new points that were strongly reinforced) in the aftermath of this weeks bombings:

1) Social media beat traditional media to the punch in initially reporting the bombings… but traditional media quickly became a trusted source, verified early reports, and actually fact checked social media.  I am based in Boston, but was notified within minutes after the bombings via instant messenger by a colleague flying cross country on a wifi equipped plane who was on Twitter.
2) Localized communication has become harder than global…. Within minutes of the incident, I knew more sitting in my office than friends just blocks away from the bombings who were wondering why runners were being diverted 15 minutes later.

3) SMS works better than voice in congested environments… despite theoretical reports published years ago that SMS was not reliable, in every major event it has proven more resilient in message delivery than traditional voice.
4) Information sharing and rumors are massively amplified by social media… “5 unexploded bombs found”, “suspect in custody”, “wireless carriers have shut down the networks”, etc.  Official sources need to stay ahead of the rumor mill with accurate and timely information.  While all media can spread rumors, the shear number of distributed “publishers” on social media magnifies the risk. Social media influencers need to use discretion and common sense before spreading disinformation.  It should be noted that the City of Boston was extremely effective in disseminating information through official twitter channels and they quickly became an extremely valuable source of information and dispelling rumors.  For example, Boston PD had nearly 60k followers prior to the bombing and soon after the incident, that number had nearly doubled.  The city also effectively coordinated communication across all the different social channels (Police, EMS, Fire, OEM, Mayor, Public Health, etc) and used them to drive individuals to other sources of information and/or appropriate physical facilities.

5) CMAS (now known as WEA or Wireless Emergency Alerts) utilization should be accelerated… with efficient protocols in place, the crowds in Boston could have been notified immediately of what was going on and where they should go immediately via their mobile devices via cell broadcast across carriers.  WEA was designed for exactly this type of scenario.

And a bonus 6th point… time to invest in video analytics.  The amount of analysis needed to parse through all the video and image content provided to law enforcement must be mind boggling.  I’m guessing most of the work was done by brute force manpower, but the time required could be drastically reduced with some of the technologies coming out of university labs.

What did I miss?  Also, if you want to help support the bombing victims and their families, please donate at  Smart911 will also make a $1 donation for each new sign-up until March 15th.


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