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The Boston Marathon bombings and social media: a discussion with students

The Boston Marathon bombings and social media: a discussion with students


I wonder how many college teachers are discussing the Boston Marathon bombings with their students, and what they are saying about the aftermath.

This week I wrote about the bombings and social media and shared the piece with my students. I often share my writing with my students, telling them "bring it"--I want to hear anything they would like to add to the discussion. They can respond anonymously too, though most want me to know who they are.

My students, when they are not ignoring me--it's sometimes hard to get them to respond if my request demands no graded assignment--usually report they learn a lot from tackling their teacher's writing and are impressed to see how even published essays can always benefit from more revision.

At first I didn't get much feedback, at least not the same lengthy, trenchant in-class commentary my students usually produce on Google Docs when they respond to peers' work and presentations.

So then I shared the piece with my colleague Mark Vega and his students, and received some great comments. After a few anonymous contributions, I surmised that some of the reticence to talk about the Marathon bombings might have to do with the developing story, and some might arise simply from the volatility of the subject matter.

I also wondered if people were having trouble with the Google Docs and responding to them.

For both reasons, I'll include the Google Doc here for others to comment on the contents and also on the pedagogical challenges of discussing the bombings and social media with students.

This is an argumentative text written by Ruth Starkman for her course “Science, Democracy and Social Media” and shared with Mark Vega’s course "Too Much Information?": The Rhetoric of Social Networks & Online Privacy."  Students in both courses are invited to challenge the utopian/dystopian visions of social media, and provide other views on the role of social media in the aftermath of the bombing.

Social media have proven extremely volatile in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Two days after the bombings, Fast Company posted a blog entitled “The Modern Tool In Terror Investigations: Your Phone,” which explained how the mass adoption of smartphones has enabled instant transmission of pictures or short films to ever-greater publics on the myriad of Web 2.0 networks — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. The article dramatically asserts that once the public realized the power of handheld technology, “culture shifted, just a little.” Maybe. In some ways public response to the bombing marks the new kind of public intervention and collaboration with the government. But many questions remain about the kind of surveillance provided by a technologically fortified and massively, instantaneously connected populace.


As soon as the Boston bombing suspects were identified, social media quickly began praising themselves for their newly acquired powers of intervention and potential protection. there were many such tweets as “Social media & the massive use of smartphones amounts to a layer of information protection against terror.” By Friday April 19, with the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, in a shootout with police, and the capture of his 19 year old brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was charged on April 22, public discussions have begun to weigh in on the mixed, often distracting and harmful effects of crowdsourcing the bombing investigation via social media.

As the FBI called on the public to participate, a surge of vigilante activity overwhelmed public conversations.  Reddit users combed the contents of their subreddit group r/FindBostonBombers targeting “suspicious” individuals at the scene, e.g. people with backpacks or those who ran too quickly or those who failed to run or those who simply “looked” strange, a “blue-robed guy” and many others, often those with darker skin.The potential anti-terrorism “protection” of social media as a reporting agency, also produced what many have called the “witch hunt” on Reddit and other sites.  Most infamously, crowdsourcing groups on Reddit mistakenly reported missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi as a potential suspect. After an onslaught of media attention, Reddit had to apologize and tragically, the Tripathi family learned on April 25, 2013, that Sunil’s body had been discovered and identified.


What Reddit general manager Erik Martin describes as "dangerous speculation" that "spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties" is a relatively new experience on social media. Prior to the bombings, public opinions of social media remained divided and often more speculative: Some extolled social media as a purveyor of grassroots participation that enabled a more informed, better-equipped public to work democratically. In a 2011 article, New York University professor Clay Shirky describes social media as an “environmental” technology with a far greater ability to mobilize vibrant civil societies and promote democratic change than “instrumental” governmental efforts that endeavor to export Internet freedom programmatically.

In the world of Web 2.0 a smartphone-equipped, social media subscribed public all the more rapidly consumes news while it also creates and transforms it. Such a world, claims Shirky, can lead to greater exchange of ideas and freedoms. Acknowledging the fog of revolutions, Shirky describes the necessity of a rational public sphere, and draws on Habermas, when he envisions the democratic potential of social media.  In 2013, the Boston Marathon bombings illustrate how quickly rational public conversation can devolve under the massive pressure of highly instantaneous and impulsive exchanges of social media.

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon warns against the ability of social media to generate misinformation and potentially dangerous hype in his piece “The social media tail mustn’t wag the MSM dog.” Poor social media reporting, Salmon avers, arises out of the difficulty of moderating what he calls a “massively multivariate real-time Bayesian analysis.” That is, social media present a monumental challenge for statistical analysis as the flood of new information from multiple sources continually reshapes knowledge of the event. Confronting the complex task of interpreting social media data, Salmon praises the traditional media outlets and established writers like Seth Mnookin for their restraint and bemoans the fury of indiscriminate information on sites like Reddit and 4channel, where users can upload material anonymously. Salmon’s response leaves readers wondering how to manage that massive Bayesian migraine of data.

To be sure, the abundance of misinformation roundly demonstrated the one aspect of the “dark side” of social media--a negative potential which many have long feared. In an article written earlier but which appeared after the bombings “Dark Side of the Digital Revolution,” Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen comment on their visit to North Korea and explain why digital media remain far from an unalloyed good, especially in the hands of authoritarian governments, where data collection can serve state surveillance. After the Boston Marathon bombings, social media raises another question: To what extent can social media serve as a massively individualized volunteer surveillance force?

In 2011 Clay Shirky extrapolates the democratic potential of social media against the government; in 2013 the Boston Marathon bombings offer a reverse case: a well-equipped, well-connected populace informing the government. Shirky reflects on the Arab Spring, where social media helped members of the public organize and overthrow authoritarian governments. Surely he remains skeptical that social media alone can complete the aims of any revolution, nevertheless Shirky imagines smartphones as a road to democracy.  In 2013 the public en masse offered itself up as unofficial collaborators of the government. While the press may be backpeddling now, retracting much of its euphoric praise of the citizen journalism that sought to aid the capture of the bombers, the failures of social media clearly reveal their limits. Lucky for all of us. Perhaps the social media savvy public can also feel chastened in about its powers of reportage and become more clearly aware of the dangers of participation in government surveillance.





I appreciated your post.  I want to think further about your important comments on social media and the bombing, but I was struck by your use of social media as a pedagogical tool in the aftermath of the attack.  Most of my students were watching the marathon about a mile away from the bombing, so I thought that face-to-face conversations in class the day afterwards were important.  I like the idea, however, of following up with our own social media strain for creative responses to the event.  Since we were discussing contemporary poetry that week, I encouraged my students to think about how they would write about the event (and to try, if they wanted to, to start writing a poem in class).  Some students showed me their finished poems in the days after that--one of them published his poem--and I think it would have been great to begin our own continued creative conversation through social media, sharing responses in poetry or other forms of writing.  Hopefully there will not be another event like this as close to home--or anywhere--but I will be more prepared to continue important, sensitive conversations in class through social media. 


thank you for your comments and suggestions!