Compare how you discovered the news about the Brussels bombings to how you found out about the September 11 terrorist attacks. In a span of 15 years, what we used to hear about on TV or read in the newspaper now became what we instantly receive updates about on our smartphones. As we have discussed before, social media is changing the way we receive and spread news. The world often turns to social media during a tragedy to share their messages of solidarity, and to gather all information about the developing story.
During the crisis
People who wanted to help offered up a safe place to stay for those in the city via social media by tweeting #porteouverte or #openhouse, uniting those during the crisis similar to during the time of the Paris attacks. Additionally, The Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo tweeted Tuesday urging people to contact Belgians through Facebook, WhatApp, and Twitter, rather than making calls to keep the mobile networks clear for communication.
After the crisis
Authorities are still on the hunt for a suspect involved in the terrorist attack, and they are reaching out on social media for help in identifying the suspect. The police in Brussels posted an image of the man they are looking for, and social media might be the way in which they are able to capture the suspect. Many famous people, leaders, influencers, and politicians responded some way on social media in regards to the attacks. The attacks in Brussels will drive the topic of terrorism and could give a boost to candidates like Donald Trump, showing how tragedies can sometimes become a way for people to fulfill their personal agendas on social media.
The Pros & Cons: There will always be advantages and disadvantages in using social platforms for various purposes, whether personal, business-related, or news-related. Below is a list of pros/cons for using social media during a crisis.
1. Social media is a way for those involved in the crisis to find out the most up to date information about what to do next.
- In a time of crisis, information is essential in keeping yourself safe if you are involved. The City of Brussels’ Facebook account gave emergency information and updates periodically to the people directly affected most.
2. Social media provides a platform for people to show their support and solidarity during a time of a crisis.
- Many people chose to temporarily change their profile pictures on Facebook or post a picture/cartoon on Instagram expressing the colors of the Belgium flag. Tweets with hashtags such as #JeSuisBruxelles (French for “I am Brussels”) and #prayfrbrussels showed the people of Brussels that others are thinking about them.
- Check this out: CNBC’s tweet shows how the usage of #JeSuisBruxelles progressed around the world on the day of the attack.
3. Letting your family and friends know you are safe becomes easier on social media.
- Features like Facebook’s “Safety Check” application has been used in many previous tragedies and is a way to check in on people you know who may be near the disaster, or to let your loved ones know right away by saying “I’m safe” or “I’m not in the area.”
1. Information gathered through social media may not be accurate.
- With such an abundance of information spread rapidly on social platforms, it is difficult to decide what is actually true, and what is a hoax or misreported information. During the Paris terrorist attacks, a Canadian Sikh man’s selfie went viral on social media when it was replaced with an image of the man holding the Quaran and wearing a suicide bomber vest. People reposted the photo claiming that he was one of the terrorists behind the Paris attacks.
2. Social media is way terrorists are communicating with one another.
- ISIS has excelled at utilizing social media and it is one of the primary ways the organization is communicating threats and recruiting. There is a debate over whether screening/tracking social media messages is consistent with current laws and privacy protections. In addition, the millions amount of content generated daily makes finding these concerning and threatening terrorists posts like a needle in a haystack.
3. The way information is spread, as well as opinions themselves, on social media is sometimes controversial.
- People argue that supportive hashtags like #prayforbrussels should be replaced with hashtags like #peaceforbrussels. In a time of crisis, controversies still arose about the words people use in a grieving situation, and whether it is appropriate to a word with a religious connotation like “pray” if religion is part of what divides society. Additionally, people argue that Belgium isn’t the only country to be affected by terrorist tragedies, and we should not be ignorant to those happening in the eastern world.
Ultimately, the pros of using social media during a tragedy outweigh the cons. In the Arab Spring movement, the use of social media was critical in helping to raise awareness worldwide and report what the news was not reporting. People could not be suppressed on social media because once content was posted, it spread rapidly. However we must recognize that social media only supplements traditional communications, and can never be the sole source of communication and news during a time of a crisis.