#PrayforBrussels and Using Social Media During a Tragedy

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.

The Pros

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.

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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.
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There is a dispute on the origin of fries (France vs. Belgium), but in a time of tragedy, people put aside differences on social media to express their support. #jesuisbruxelles

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.”


The Cons

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.


  1. Lauren, I enjoyed your blog post and appreciated the fresh take you used to frame the topic. I think your pro/con list is spot on and I agree that the pros outweigh the cons. It is much easier for terrorists to communicate, recruit, and start a negative campaign, but the use of social media in this way allows those keeping us safe to locate terrorists faster, catch wind of some attacks before they happen, and/or at the very least put together the pieces more quickly. The fact that social media allows good people to come together is reassurance that we’re not alone and it provides a vehicle for us to better and more easily support one another (also to locate and offer safe havens for one another). Two of your cons raise very important topics that apply to the use of social media more broadly. Related to the first con, we all should keep in mind that everything we read on the internet is not accurate – photos, comments, and reports can be doctored and are often bias. Here’s just one example of doctored images: http://news.yahoo.com/the-story-behind-10-famous-doctored-photos-162819256.html. Regarding the third con, you’re right in that as much as social media let’s us rally around a cause, it often highlights that we’ve forgotten about, are ignorant to, or feel less obliged to support other, arguably equally worthy, causes. Finally, I like that you brought it all together with a final reminder that, for the reasons mentioned, it’s important not to rely solely on social media for news and communication.

  2. Very thoughtful post about a tragic event that we are unfortunately seeing more and more of each day. I liked how you started the post comparing how much has changed since 9/11, and how we use social media to keep updated and to make sure people are safe. I was running the 2013 Boston Marathon and when the bombs went off, I was half a mile from the finish line. I wasn’t running the marathon with my phone, and nobody around me had their phone either, so for a few hours, none of my family or friends knew where I was and if I was safe. I finally was able to find a phone to call my Mom to let her know I was ok, and she ended up posting something on my Facebook wall that I was ok, and that’s how most of my friends and family knew I was ok. Without social media. it would have taken a lot longer for people to get that message. I imagine it was similar for so many other runners and spectators that day. Social media has definitely brought people together for the better, but as you said, it also brings people together for the worse. Our classmate, @ntantang, posted a great video on Twitter about how terrorist groups use social media to gain followers: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/isis-filling-positions-through-social-media/?linkId=22746951. If we can do more to combat terrorism online and stop these groups from posting propaganda to gain followers, we will have a better chance of fighting terrorists and hopefully preventing more attacks.

  3. This is a really fascinating topic. I agree that social media is a positive tool in these situations for all the reasons you listed. Communication during crisis is extremely important no matter what the issue is. I think the issue of forgotten tragedies and why we give so much attention on social to certain events is really fascinating. It seems like it’s probably positive that attention can be called to events that would have otherwise been overlooked by viewers of traditional media.

  4. Really great post Lauren. I enjoyed how you looked at both the pros and the cons of social media during a crisis; I thought each point was very well thought out and valid. The Brussels Attack was the first major news story I solely learned about through social media, I figured out something happened while scrolling through my Instagram feed and then went straight to Twitter to check out its ‘Moment’. By the time I got around to checking news sites I realized everything they were saying I had already seen on Twitter. While of course this was all after the attacks had ended and the misinformation filtered out, I thought it was interesting that social media was this effective at catching me up to the news.

  5. Nice post, Lauren. Social media typically is the first thing people turn to when something terrible happens, especially since most everyone is so connected to their phone in this day and age, and it’s terrible when inaccurate information starts flowing through the grapevine. There really isn’t a filter for truth, and it’s scary that as connected as SM allows us to be, it also allows the bad people like terrorists to become more connected as well. On the other side of the coin, it also keeps us aware that things are happening, display a united front, and I think the Facebook Safety Check is a pretty cool tool. I appreciate you going through the pros and cons of social media during times of crisis, it really made me think from both sides of the spectrum.

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