Tuesday Blink: Colorado, Social Media and Calamity

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Last week, a terrible thing happened in Aurora, Colorado.

I’m not going to recount the events. That’s what Wikipedia and Google News are for.

Nor will I name the shooter since that is evidently part of what motivates gun-related massacres.

I will talk about how social media is changing the way we respond to calamity.

1. Social Media Is How We Find Out Bad Things Have Happened

Morning news doesn’t happen in my house.Aurora Shooting victims

The small people in my world get up more or less when I do. They have no stomach for the inanities of morning news programming or the three minutes of (often) disturbing real news that gets spliced in between the shopping features and weather reports.

So I don’t get much hard news until I check my news feeds during my commute.

On Friday morning, I checked Twitter like I always do as I walked across a field of sun-burnt grass toward the TTC station. And I stopped, dead in my tracks as the saying goes, blinking at the screen in the glaring light.

It is always shocking to learn 12 people have died because they went to see a movie.

While the appropriate social reaction was and is obvious, it’s interesting that news reports received via social media are always filtered through the reactions of the people relaying them.

So much for objectivity in news coverage.

2. Social Media Makes Searching for Meaning Easier and Faster

Jessica Ghawi photo, one of many readily available through her social media accountsBy now, you’ve probably heard about Jessica Ghawi, who went by the professional alias Jessica Redfield in her broadcasting career.

Ghawi died in the movie theatre, despite the best efforts of her friend.

Friends talking about it today speculated that she became the early face of the tragedy because Ghawi was young, pretty and white.

I won’t deny these factors likely heightened her appeal to newsroom editors.

But they don’t tell the whole story.

There are four reasons why the world now knows a little about Ghawi’s life:

  1. She was active on social media, including Twitter. Her stream of cheerful photos highlight the tremendous social cost of violence.
  2. She wrote a powerful blog post (only one of two, unfortunately) about narrowly avoiding a shooting in Toronto’s Eaton Centre six weeks prior to her death. The terrible coincidence practically writes its own headline. The post has been republished in media outlets all over the world. I read it first via a link shared through Roger Ebert’s Twitter account.
  3. She was an aspiring journalist who had many contacts among journalists in the field, which in turn helped to make her story easy to share. For example, I listened to a CBC radio interview with Jesse Spector, an NHL sportcaster who had exchanged tweets with her up to 20 minutes before her death, on my way home from work the next day. He learned she had died when reporters who saw that exchange contacted him for comment.
  4. Her family and friends have used Youtube and blog posts to share information, mourn their loss and celebrate Ghawi’s life. I was moved that her brother declined interviews the second day of the tragedy to ensure other victims received their share of coverage.

The writer in me is sorry Jessica never learned what a deep and wide capacity she had to move people with her words.

3. Social Media Mobilizes People in the Wake of Tragedy

This shooting happened so quickly that the social footprint of immediate footage has been relatively small. There was a cell phone video, but not much else.

Contrast that to the riots in Vancouver, where police searched hundreds upon thousands of uploaded photos and video footage for evidence.

For details about the impact of social media on the Vancouver Riot investigation, click through to page 75 of the police report.

Now consider that if social media had been available when 9/11 happened how many things would have been different.

Here are a few I think about every time another anniversary passes:

  • Relatives would have tried to use Twitter and Facebook to confirm whether people they knew in the affected areas were safe.
  • Footage would have emerged from inside the buildings and, possibly, the planes. All of those digital artifacts would have been part of the public record like the 9-1-1 phone logs.
  • Facebook and other social networks would have been used to mobilize the search for the missing and coordinate volunteer efforts.
  • All the fundraising that happened likely would have used social channels.
  • Rumour and speculation would have been rampant.
  • Stories about coincidences, like Ghawi’s presence at the shooting in Toronto, and other rare misses would have spread and been collected more easily.
  • Social media would have become part of the national fabric of grief as the Internet did via news sites, such as the New York Times, and the recent memorial site (which is beautiful and elegant).

If you’re reading this and you work for a city or are tasked with emergency response in some other capacity, I encourage you to use social media as part of your planning.

It’s easy to prepare a skeleton of a web site or content for a Facebook page. Make sure it’s ready to go should you, heaven forbid, ever need it.

Summing Up

I know too much about Columbine.

I watched live coverage when it happened. I will never forget seeing Patrick Ireland pulled through that shattered library window.

I followed the online coverage in the weeks and months and years that followed.

With the benefit of hindsight, I speculate that my unconscious theory was that if I read enough, an unfathomable horror would make sense.

The Denver-based Rocky Mountain News (now absorbed by the DenverPost.com) stands out in my mind as one the best sources for in-depth features. It won four Pulitzer Prizes for  news coverage from 2000 onward. If regional journalism goes the way of all things, the loss of papers like this one makes me think we will be sorrier for it.

To this day, I could give you a decent timeline of events without doing much reference checking. If pressed, I could probably name most of the victims by first name.

I’ve never read the killers’ diaries or the autopsy reports, nor will I link to them here.

But this week, when another gun-related tragedy consumed Colorado, I was grateful social media didn’t exist when Columbine happened.

Managing my dark obsession with that horrible thing was hard enough.

With the immediacy of social media, it might have been damn near impossible.