Twitter In A Time Of Tragedy
By Sarah-Jane CollinsJuly 26, 2012
Social media is the new news-wire, with witnesses able to report events as they happen. But in the case of devastating incidents, such as the mass shooting at the Batman screening, there’s a lot of real-time blundering in.
Is there a way to measure, when a really big story breaks, how quickly someone will insert themselves — awkwardly, insensitively, badly — into it? In the wake of the Aurora cinema shooting, it didn't take very long.
On Twitter "#Aurora" was trending, as users flooded the site with comments, information, eyewitness accounts and other facts, trivia and news about the tragedy. One public relations flack who wasn't paying close attention got a little confused and tried to take advantage of the hashtag.
"#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress," wrote an apparently clueless PR, not based — according to the company Celeb Boutique — in the United States.
Ignorance can make for some awkward mistakes on social media, but in this case it wasn't just ignorance on display in the days that followed the mass shooting.
On the same day, bad taste jokes about the incident were circling, with one tweeter, Playboy model Tricia Evans posting: "I heard the new Batman movie is really "to die for"! Too soon?"
She was inundated with negative responses, unsurprisingly, and according to The Huffington Post spent many a tweet vacillating between contrite and cocky.
There were the accidental, badly timed mis-tweets, like this one from the American National Rifle Association's publication, NRA Rifleman: "Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?" posted (and later removed) about nine hours after the cinema shooting.
In what was perhaps a damaging combination of anxiety and frustration, former US senator for the state of Arizona Russell Pearce posted on his public Facebook page that lives could have been saved, had one of the theatregoers fought back.
"What a heartbreaking story. Had someone been prepared and armed they could have stopped this 'bad' man from most of this tragedy. He was two and three feet away from folks, I understand he had to stop and reload. Where were the men of flight 93???? Someone should have stopped this man. Someone could have stopped this man. Lives were lost because of a bad man, not because he had a weapon, but because no one was prepared to stop it," he posted.
The post was followed up with a response to criticism levelled at him that somewhat clarified his earlier words.
"It sure didn't take long for [media] to try and mischaracterize my earlier post as some sort of attack on the victims of the horrific attack in Colorado. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the victims and their families as they should," the more recent post reads.
But Pearce, neck deep in the now-raging debate over gun control, was not in any frame of mind to apologise.
"All I did was lament that so many people should be left disarmed and vulnerable by anti-gun rules that try to create a sense of safety by posting a sign that says 'No Guns', when the only real effect is to disarm everyone who could have saved lives," he continued.
The post goes on, ending on this note: "You cannot predict where evil will raise its head, but you can be prepared for it."
Social media comes into its own when an unfolding event allows members of the public to bear witness, to report details, as they unfold, through tweets, blogs, pictures, videos, audio snippets and Facebook posts.
In the past four years (at least), as the influence of Twitter and other tools has grown, it has provided not just pictures of cats but an ever-richer picture of world events mapped out before us. As more and more people sign up to use these online tools, their impact will only grow.
But for every eyewitness telling the unvarnished truth, there will surely be someone who misinterprets the moment, and as some of those who made mistakes in the wake of Aurora have discovered, the medium goes both ways, and suddenly your ill-conceived remark might make its own way into the slipstream.
Still, social media led coverage of Aurora. Listen here to a Global Mail report on how victims, their families, and the work of citizen journalists shaped reporting of the shooting.