#JFK50…How Social Media Has Changed Our Response to Tragic Events


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As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, several incredible documentaries have been aired that combine video, still images, and audio recordings that paint the story of the last 24 hours, and seconds, of his life. I can’t help but imagine how the events of November 22, 1963 and subsequent days would have unfolded differently in 2013 with modern technology and social media.

This past week I have been utterly amazed by the amount of footage and number of firsthand reflections that The History Channel and others were able to compile for their special programs and tributes. The video, despite the technology available at the time, was enhanced in vivid color and clarity, practically transporting me back in time to those late November days in Texas. In one of the specials, during an interview with bystander Abraham Zapruder about what he had just witnessed as he was filming the President’s motorcade in Dealy Plaza, news anchor Jay Watson of WFAA-TV in Dallas asked, “Do you have the film in your camera?” “Yes,” replies Zapruder. Watson then says, “We’ll try to get that processed and have it as soon as possible.” In that instant, I was shocked back into the present and I began to wonder how the events might have played out today.remembering-jfk-11-22-1963

Part of the picture seems pretty clear to me. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube would have been simultaneously flooded with immediate firsthand accounts of the events, images, video, as well as expressions of shock and grief from around the globe. Misinformation, false accusations, and conspiracy theories would have begun instantly. In fact, it was approximately 15 minutes after the assassin’s shots were fired before WFAA-TV in Dallas interrupted its regularly scheduled programming to break the news. Today, news outlets would have scrambled to keep pace with the everyday citizen posting online, rather than be the source of the breaking news. Ultimately, traditional media outlets would regain their position as the more trusted source, but reactions and commentary online wouldn’t slow down for quite some time.

If this sounds familiar, it should. We saw all of this 7 months ago here in Boston on Marathon Monday. In fact, I was one of the first members of my team to realize something was going on down on Boylston Street. What makes this remarkable is that I was on a flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and happened to catch some of the first bystander Tweets of two “loud bangs” near the finish line. I IM’d my boss to be sure he was aware, and then I tuned into the news coverage at my seat. The Twitter floodgates opened with more reports of the explosions and initial reports of the injured and killed. Photographs followed almost immediately thereafter. Eventually, television caught up, but it took no less than 5 minutes. If my ability to consume all of this real-time at 32,000 feet in a commercial aircraft doesn’t epitomize our significant technological advancements since 1963, I don’t know what does.

We live in a time of unprecedented interconnectivity thanks to social media and the instant sharing of photographs and video from devices not much larger than a deck of playing cards connected over wireless data networks with speeds inconceivable just a few short years ago. This new reality can be harnessed for good, such as the rapid dissemination of critical information or calls for aid, as we have seen recently in the Philippines and following this weekend’s Midwest tornadoes. It can also lead to confusion through erroneous reports, regardless of the intent, and even complicate or hinder an investigation.

However, I am much less certain of the psychological impacts of social media, and this doesn’t apply only to JFK’s assassination. The rapid and detailed dissemination of news through social media connects us to tragedies to which we never would have been previously. This translates to our being subjected a greater number of horrific events with greater intensity than we were even just a few short years ago. Does this new connectivity put us into sensory overload? Does it desensitize us to events that should spark an emotional reaction? I think yes to both.

The outcome of our collective desensitization and rapid replacement of the previous tragedy with the next one is that we quickly forget. I’m not sure we are ever given sufficient time to fully recover or are permitted to go through all stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief, if you subscribe to her theory of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It seems that there is never quite enough time to fully recover. It’s possible too that with the amount of information shared online, that a reaction to a negative event could just as easily be replaced by a positive or more light-hearted story. In either case, it would seem that there are short-term benefits to “moving on” more quickly. Without sequestering volunteers and shielding them from social media and the Internet in order to examine the long-term effects of connectedness on our psychological healing process following a certain tragedy, I’m afraid it might be some time before we truly understand the impacts.

The bottom line is that the way we consume information and breaking news, and interact with it through social media, has been dramatically and forever changed. If there is any doubt over how the world would have reacted online on November 22, 1963, simply drop in on your Facebook or Twitter feed this Friday and multiply the number of references to the JFK assassination by at least several million.

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