National Geographic News
A runner cries after the Boston Marathon was bombed in Boston, Massachusetts.

A Boston Marathon runner leaves the course crying following Monday's bombings.

Photograph by Winslow Townson, AP

Dan Gilgoff and Jane J. Lee

National Geographic News

Published April 15, 2013

Fifteen minutes after Sara Bozorg, a doctor at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, finished the Boston Marathon on Monday, she heard the first loud blast. Then she heard the second one, and spied the smoke rising.

Police quickly descended around the finish line and, with cell phones mostly not working, Bozorg and her boyfriend repaired to his home, turned on the news, and logged onto Facebook, where Bozorg posted that she was OK and that her phone was down.

"I have been following my friend's Facebook [account] who is near the scene and she is updating everyone before it even gets to the news," Bozorg said by e-mail on Monday night.

Indeed, as word spread of the blasts on Monday afternoon, social media seemed shaped by every aspect of the response, from runners giving their accounts of the race-turned-nightmare on Facebook, to authorities using Twitter to give instant updates, to The Boston Globe temporarily converting its homepage to a live blog that pulled in Tweets from Boston authorities, news outlets, and ordinary citizens.

The blasts have left three dead and have injured scores more, according to news reports.

Terrorism experts said that social media helped people in Boston and beyond determine their next steps after hearing about the explosions.

"Authorities have recognized that one the first places people go in events like this is to social media, to see what the crowd is saying about what to do next," said Bill Braniff, Executive Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism. "And today authorities went to Twitter and directed them to traditional media environments where authorities can present a clear calm picture of what to do next."

"We know from crisis communication research that people typically search for corroborating information before they take a corrective action—their TV tells them there's a tornado brewing and they talk to relatives and neighbors. And now they look at Twitter."

On Monday, information about the blasts spread more quickly on social media than through traditional news outlets. "I was first notified to the event by my daughter, who was on Twitter, and that was before it came out on CNN," said Anthony C. Roman, president of a security consulting firm in New York called Roman and Associates.

That way of instantly spreading information far beyond the affected area also builds an online community around such events that can cross state and national borders. On Monday afternoon, #BostonMarathon quickly became a trending hashtag on Twitter.

"If I'm here in Washington, D.C., and I'm on Twitter and can demonstrate my empathy, it helps create this idea of resolve or community solidarity with people who are there on the ground in a way that uni-dimensional media doesn't do," said Braniff. "Online, I can express outrage or sympathy."

"I get a greater sense of unity—the we is a much bigger we," he said.

Terrorism experts said the proliferation of photos and video on the Web through social media might also help authorities identify the perpetrators of the attack.

"All the media provides a tremendous asset for the forensic evaluation of the explosion event," said Roman. "Authorities can start examining the pictures and tapes looking for individuals near the receptacles where the bombs were found and individuals not fitting the profile of the general spectator can be identified."

Libby Hemphill, an Illinois Institute of Technology professor who studies social media, said she's noticed big differences in how people use social media to react to national disasters and human-made ones like the Boston bombings.

Whereas during a natural disaster like Sandy, people never stopped documenting the aftermath in pictures and video, such documentation is already winding down after the Boston Marathon.

"Right after the explosions happened, we saw a lot of photographs, but that's dropped off now," she said. "People have stopped documenting and now are trying to make sense of what happened."

10 comments
Charles Hebblethwaite
Charles Hebblethwaite

They now will sway the people to ban explosive making materials. Tyrany is comming, it is at the door!

Dani Ferret
Dani Ferret

We are with you Boston and America . And we pray for the wounded . Here in Israel sorry to say we have an experience with all kind of terror, just today 2 rockets were fired in to the southern town of Eilat.From my age 40 I can tell that the answer for terror is to show those animals that we are stronger than them that we are not afraid and we will fight them everywhere anytime.and our life won't change marathon will take place now twice a year.The life ...is the answer for this animals.Me from Israel.

Dani Ferret
Dani Ferret

We are with you Boston and America . And we pray for the wounded . Here in Israel sorry to say we have an experience with all kind of terror, just today 2 rockets were fired in to the southern town of Eilat.From my age 40 I can tell that the answer for terror is to show those animals that we are stronger than them that we are not afraid and we will fight them everywhere anytime.and our life won't change marathon will take place now twice a year.The life ...is the answer for this animals.Me from Israel.

Unifyed Knowledge
Unifyed Knowledge

Sad Sad Sad.  I feel and pray for those afflicted by the bombing. I am going out on a limb here, but I guess we won't see any of the three G's on the headlines for awhile now, Gay's, Gun's, and Green(cards). My therapist say's there is a positive for everything, and my Physics ED taught me for every - theres a +.

Samale Matina
Samale Matina

I don't think people carrying out these attacks care if you are a "law-abiding, tax paying" person as in the previous comment.

All they see is, as an American you pay for, what they see as, wrongs done by America to their nation. Not saying these terrorist are right or justified but that this is the reasoning they use to fuel their radical agenda.

MyNews Clips
MyNews Clips

How come this happens to peaceful, law-abiding, taxpaying people ? what in the world we ever did to anyone? right here in USA ? is it one of that drone malfunctioned which were meant to blow up Afghans children's or what ?

Brandon Holt
Brandon Holt

@Samale Matina We don't know who is responsible right now or why they did it. Not all terrorists are foreign. This could very well be our very own home grown fanatic. 

Ben Done
Ben Done

@MyNews Clips And by wishing to blow up Afghan's children you are just as immoral as the b******* who caused this devastation.  A person is a person, and a child is a child.  You say "what in the world we ever did to anyone?" YOU have done nothing to insult their nation.  But you are American, and OTHER American's have insulted their nation.  You say blow up Afghan's children but what have those children done to anyone!? Nothing! It is OTHER individuals from that nation which carry out these horrific terrorist attacks on America.  Don't bring yourself to their level and attack innocent lives.  An Afghan child's life is as precious as yours.  Open your eyes!

Lori Nelson
Lori Nelson

@Ben Done @MyNews Clips I think you missed their point. I dont think my news clips was saying it should of been afgan children, only making a sarcastic remark about the use of drones in the US.

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