How the Boston Marathon bombings changed Twitter, media and how we process tragedy
On April 15, 2013, two improvised bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Emergency workers scrambled to treat over 200 injured runners and fans. Law enforcement agencies launched a manhunt for the perpetrators. And Americans, glued to their phone and television screens, watched for hours, waiting for the confusion and chaos to unfurl into a narrative.
That act of watching — aided by new platforms, fueled by faster reporting — ushered in a new age of national response to local emergencies. The Boston Marathon bombings left an enduring framework for how Americans process, organize and mourn in the face of tragedy.
Twitter solidified its status as the new public square
When Dan Lampariello saw smoke pouring over Copley Square, an instinct kicked in.
"I pulled out my phone and started taking pictures," said Lampariello, a local television reporter who was a journalism student at Suffolk University at the time.
It wasn't until later, from the safety of the Prudential Center where he and other spectators took shelter, that he realized he'd captured the second bomb detonating, mid-explosion.
"Once I saw the photo I took, I was like, 'People need to see this. People need to know what happened and what it looked like firsthand,'" he told NPR. "The only reason I chose Twitter was because I knew it would reach an audience that was craving information."
Lampariello's tweet, misspellings and all, may be among the most memorable from that day. But it was just one of 27.8 million tweets sent about the bombings that week, making it the most-discussed event on the platform in 2013.
The flurry of traffic marked a key moment, says Hong Qu, a researcher of media and information sharing from Harvard University. The rush to discuss the bombings was the first time the mainstream public embraced Twitter — not just as a way to organize within communities, but to "broadcast information to the whole world," Qu told NPR.
Twitter, which launched in 2006, had already served key roles in other mass news events.
Arab Spring protesters used the platform in 2010 to organize outside the surveillance of government regimes. 2011's Occupy Wall Street movement gained a grassroots following through 140 character missives. But the Boston bombings were something different.
"The sheer density of people at the marathon alone made it very easy for people to share their experiences," Qu said. "We also saw public safety authorities [using Twitter] to transmit safety warnings."
As a four-day manhunt ensued, hourly Twitter updates replaced the controlled daily press briefings and the "we-interrupt-this-programming" emergency bulletins of days gone by.
The chase for suspects ended with a tweet perfectly proportional to the public's interest in the play-by-play: "CAPTURED!!!," wrote the Boston Police Department. "The terror is over. And justice has won."
CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.— Boston Police Dept. (@bostonpolice) April 20, 2013
But before that clear moment of conclusion came a crowdsourced investigation. Like Lampariello, thousands of people acted on their instinct to share what they knew, to push harder towards a moment of resolution and catharsis.
"There was definitely a flick of the switch moment," Lampariello remembered. "People just wanted to get out what happened as quickly as possible, accurate or not."
One 2013 study showed that 29% of the most viral content shared in the days after the bombing was false information or rumors. Another 50% were just opinions or feelings, not facts.
In one case, Twitter users picked up a Reddit rumor that a missing Brown University student was the chief suspect. And the rumor was repeated, prima facie, by some journalists.
It wasn't the only mistake legacy media outlets made.
Legacy media tried (and sometimes failed) to meet new levels of speed
In one notorious example, CNN prematurely reported a suspect had been arrested. Other outlets, including the Associated Press and the Boston Globe followed their lead — and all had to issue corrections when officials denied the claim.
The New York Post was sued for libel after publishing a photo of two Moroccan runners under the headline "Bag Men."
As Qu phrased it in a 2014 analysis, news consumers responded with a new level of tolerance. They would stick with coverage through high levels of uncertainty in exchange for the roller coaster experience of following an investigation in real time.
For some journalists, the story did offer historic breakthroughs in how tools like social media could be used.
When the Boston Globe's website briefly failed under high traffic, the outlet leaned on Twitter to keep publishing. Journalist Seth Mnookin successfully tracked the manhunt using social media, then traded his reporters' notebook for live note-taking on Twitter.
In a 2014 analysis, Mnookin wrote that reporting on social media came with a new and enduringly competitive advantage over TV or radio: The pace of updates is now set by the news itself, and not the need to fill air time.
But those unpredictable moments of urgency make it hard to look away — and that comes with a cost. A study promoted by the Department of Justice showed that those who consumed six or more hours of news coverage in the week following the bombing experienced higher levels of acute stress than those directly exposed to the event.
"Boston Strong" provided a template for community mourning
As much as the changing forms of news and social media can be conduits for trauma, they can also be tools for healing.
In the hours after the bombing, the staff of Boston Magazine scrambled to redo their next cover story, successfully predicting what would become the city's symbol of resiliency: Running shoes.
But it was the text on the cover that best captured the crowdsourced mourning that would soon consume not just the city, but the nation.
"We will finish the race," the cover read, the start of a million variations on the enduringly ubiquitous recovery mantra, "Boston Strong."
The phrase "Boston Strong," was borrowed from the start — the brainchild of three Emerson College students inspired by the "Live Strong" mantra associated with Lance Armstrong's cancer foundation.
One of those students, Nick Reynolds, told NPR in 2014 that the trio printed "Boston Strong" on T-shirts, thinking they'd sell about 100 to raise money for the victims' families.
"In our first week, we actually sold 37,000," Reynolds said. Before long, the words were plastered everywhere from the grass at Fenway Park to the mint boxes sold at gift shops.
In the decade since, the creation of a rallying phrase has become a cultural mainstay, the fastest way to show solidarity in the face of trauma.
The Associated Press noted the quick creation of the hashtags "Dayton Strong," "El Paso Strong" and "Parkland Strong" following mass shootings in the last decade. Each sparked its own array of merchandise and memorials — and questions about whether all the self-branding was beneficial or just repeated until it was banal.
But "Boston Strong" became a trend because it worked, at least in one practical way. One Fund, the charity associated with the original "Boston Strong" T-shirt sales, disbursed $61 million dollars in donations to survivors and victims' families — all within the first two months of its creation.
Many of those victims' families — plus survivors, hospital leaders, race volunteers, fire fighters, police officers, government officials, neighbors and friends — will line the streets of Boston on Monday to cheer on another 30,000 runners who will take the marathon course.
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