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Breaking news in a connected world

Published on
30 Jun 2013

The bitterness of the tragedy is the same, what has changed is the way that information spreads.

I heard about the Boston Marathon Bombing, first when I was preparing to go to bed, and as a recently emerged habit, I was doing my bed-time-Facebook “friend feed” check. The news-line was so shocking that I kept “browsing” for the next few hours. It was quite different to the case of 9/11 attacks when I encountered the story while having my afternoon snack and watching TV in a local snack-bar.

Although it was also hard to believe when I was watching the videos of the smoking buildings on TV some eleven years ago, but this time I was much more suspicious about what I was witnessing on my Facebook friend feed. I thought may be it’s a late arriving “April fool’s joke”! It’s not a totally unreasonable suspicion, given the fact that generally a TV news story is supposed to be much more reliable than a random post by a random guy on his Facebook wall. Then I checked Wikipedia (believe me or not, it’s usually the fastest in such cases, and I don’t have a TV!). I searched for “Boston” in Wikipedia search field and I ended up with a yet very short article titled “2013 Boston Marathon bombings“, and it became quite evident that something nasty has happened.

Although the nature of the terrorist attacks, the emotions involved in and evoked by, the bitterness of the memory, etc, have not changed much during the last decades, but the way of information exposure around these topics, as well as any other “breaking news” has changed dramatically.
The recently developed bottom-up social media offer totally different channels for information dissemination with their own pros and cons.

The rapid spread and deep penetration of information brought up by the social media is undeniable. However, in non-hierarchical structure of news production no one is responsible for the accuracy and correctness of the information, apart from the “citizen journalists” who produce and consume the information at the same time. In addition to that, the type of multimedia materials produced now on breaking news are also significantly different. Most of the videos and photos on such events are produced by “amateur crowed journalists” with their smart phones in hand. However they could draw a fairly accurate and multidimensional picture of the event in an incredibly short time. This could be quite valuable in cases like recent Iran earthquake where much earlier than the official sources could provide information on the casualties and damages caused by the earthquake in rural area and small villages with no official media coverage, you could see dozens of photos and even videos uploaded to the Web.

Publishing uncovered photos of suspects and asking citizens to help the police to spot them is a rather classic method, and has been in use for many years. However, new technologies could again be of great help in this field too. Do not forget that in the case of the marathon bombing, the police tracked the suspects by locating the cell-phone of the driver of the car hijacked by them. I believe this can go much further, remembering that a team from MIT could find 10 red balloons spread over the USA within the 2009 DARPA Network Challenge in less than 9 hours using crowd-sourcing and with the help of around 5000 random participants from public.

Back to the case of natural disasters, when proper distribution of resources and aids within the first few hours after the event, are extremely important and could decrease the casualties significantly, crowd-sourced information could potentially play an important role in assigning priorities and spotting regions in crucial conditions.

A less technically important topic yet with great deal of humanity and emotional aspects of socially connected world of today is the way that social media could provide a common medium to share emotions and sympathies with the people suffered in cases including natural disasters, terrorist attacks and any other of this kind. I remember that in 2001, people in Tehran went to the streets and light candles in memory of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack, however I’m not sure whether the suffered families and other USA citizens were exposed to this through the main-stream media. This year it was much easier to send a massage of condolence directly to the attacked nation by using the #preyforbostin “hashtag” in twitter. Therefore it’s no wonder that the hashtags of #preyforboston and #preyforiran, both became “trend” in twitter in mid-April 2013.