The Social Media Disaster

by Adam on November 6, 2012

Many cities along the East Coast are still in the midst of digging out from Hurricane Sandy, and as such, it feels disingenuous to say that the storm has now passed us. The driving wind and rain are gone, but I don’t doubt that the physical and emotional effects of this event will be felt for weeks and months to come.

At times like this, especially when weather and natural events cause us to have to break out of the mold of our everyday lives and realize that we are part of a larger planet that is itself living and changing, I can’t help but think about our modern world. Everything from the conveniences that electricity and running water afford us, to the power we can often wield with digital platforms and social media is brought into glaring focus when we need to confront the fact that there are forces outside of us that can disrupt that.

In Boston, things were quieter than in most cities along the eastern seaboard, but I did have a chance to watch, via Facebook, Twitter and other sites, some of the chaos that was ensuing, especially in New York City. And one thing that struck me, perhaps after the fact, is that even with all the talk there is about how social media can empower us, build us up, and enrich our lives, there was a surprising amount of misinformation about the storm, its effects and the dangers that it presented as events were unfolding.

When I say misinformation, I’m not talking about a supermarket tabloid that says such and such celebrity divorced another. Sure, that sort of thing is somewhat obnoxious, but it’s by no means dangerous (unless it’s your fake divorce that’s right there in glaring headlines). I’m talking about (primarily) ridiculous photos that showed sharks swimming through the streets of New Jersey, that showed (incorrectly) that a subway station on 83rd Street was completely flooded (as was the NYSE, although, wait, actually it wasn’t). These photos may seem relatively innocuous and all in good fun, and some truly were pretty fantastic Photoshop endeavors, but honestly, there is a real sense in which social media, during a time such as this, should be used for accurate and helpful crisis information.

As news started to spread that some of the photos were doctored and some were not, wouldn’t an onlooker be rightfully hesitant to trust any information they start to see online? What’s real and what isn’t? Do I really need to contact my parents in New Jersey to be sure they don’t have a shark in their backyard? On top of all the other concerns one might have at a time like that, why, oh why, do we need such a flood of content that has no basis in reality? We don’t.

And while I don’t want to sound like someone preaching from the pulpit, we should really be holding ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to our social media usage. If social media is really going to enrich our lives and empower us, let’s make sure that it at least serves a good purpose at a time when it’s needed most.

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