Twitter, Account Hacks and All, Still the News Source of Choice for Many

04/29/2013 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2013

"Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured."

This tweet, sent from the official Associated Press Twitter last week, shocked a nation still reeling from the "tough week," as described by President Obama and others, during which bombings killed three and injured hundreds at the Boston Marathon, a deadly explosion occurred in West, Texas, and a police officer was murdered in the manhunt for the Boston bombing suspects. Thankfully, however, this tweet about the White House bombings turned out to be false. The Associated Press responded promptly, explaining that their Twitter account had been hacked (apparently by a group known as the Syrian Electronic Army, according to an update since the original writing of this). Though false, reactions to the alarming tweet illustrated the pull social media has had on us during this whole saga in which the strength of the entire nation was tested. Furthermore, this impact was not only emotional in nature, but economic as well. According to reports , "within two minutes, the Dow was down 140 points, the S&P index had lost nearly 1 percent, and an estimated $200 billion in the U.S. stock market value had vanished. (Fortunately) As word spread that the tweet was fake, prices quickly stabilized." Regardless of this stabilization, we clearly felt the effects of this scare.

Getting back to this "Tough Week," now nearly 14 days ago, as the news raged on, I found myself turning to social media sites like Twitter and Reddit for the latest updates about the situation in Boston. Already, many writers covering the story within the story have cited the terrible week as possibly the first major event where social media sites functioned at least as well as, if not better than, the traditional media in covering the twists and turns. Some have even suggested that the tragedy at the Marathon will forever change how Americans digest news.

While some thought leaders believe the specific circumstances involved there may shift this paradigm, this was certainly not the first time Twitter has broken a story. When a Turkish Airlines plane crashed at Amsterdam's Schipol airport in 2009, a "dramatic image of (the) fractured plane posted on Twitter... was the first worldwide view" (story). Similarly, when a small plane crashed into the Hudson River earlier this year, Janis Kruns, who happened to be aboard a ferry at that time being used to help rescued stranded passengers, uploaded a picture of the scene to Twitter. Within 30 minutes of doing so, MSNBC contacted him for an interview to follow up on the story, again first brought to the world via the social media site (story).

In both of these cases, traditional news sources (CNN in Amsterdam and the New York Times and MSNBC along with others for the Hudson crash) followed up on the reports from twitter with their own stories; however, only after verifying the events with trusted sources. Herein lies the major difference between Twitter and traditional media: Twitter values "speed to press" and immediate relevancy, whereas other news sources will sacrifice speed for verification. While their recent hack was not a situation where the Associated Press unknowingly published unverified information, surely such incidents have occurred. However, when I can check Twitter (or Reddit) and see images of a "fractured plane," or one floating in the Hudson almost immediately after the events, I'm willing to trade some possible moments of confusion (as in the case of the falsely reported White House bombings) for up-to-the-minute reports.

Furthermore, I'm certainly not alone in this, as my generation of 20-somethings more and more tunes in to Twitter and other social media sources for our news. However, for anyone who noticed the phenomenon of my generation (along with those older than us in increasing numbers), one that no longer relies on cable to catch our favorite sitcoms and series, but rather turns to the Internet to stream them. Though it's nice to not pay for cable television, social media provides many benefits above and beyond being freely available to anyone with Internet access.

For example, take Reddit's inherent content management filter: when someone posts questionable or blatantly false information, nobody "upvotes" it and that content therefore never surfaces. Similarly, in order for the average tweet, which some claim has a "life" of 30 seconds or less, to gain any traction, not only many people, but many influential people (those with many Twitter followers) must see, mention, retweet, and/or reply to the original message. This social verification provides at least some level of legitimacy to the tweets that become most popular. Of course, social media doesn't stop rumors and untrustworthy sources (as in the AP hack); however, it seems that the general user base, at least in times of urgent news, like the recent events in Boston and West, Texas, cares enough about finding the facts that it collectively shuts out the rest. Lastly, perhaps social media's strongest advantage is that most people today can access it nearly anywhere. I spoke with friends who, while travelling for work during the week of the Marathon, tuned in from mobile devices while sitting on trains, buses, and airport runways throughout the country. Countless others, I'm sure, contributed to the widespread lack of productivity that entire week (albeit for a good cause) as they tuned in from desks, cubicles, and offices everywhere.

Finally, these new outlets have also served as a beacon of safety and well-being. Numerous government authorities, university spokespeople, and media personnel urged students and other residents of Boston to post on their Facebook profiles that they were OK after the attacks. Furthermore, the Internet giant Google even came out with their Person Finder website as a fast and reliable way to search for friends and loved ones in the aftermath of the bombing. The simple presence of these two widely used and extremely valuable applications of social media signifies a positive advance from the arguably less-effective forms of communication used just over a decade ago during the September 11 attacks.

Sadly, as was also the case with the September 11th attack, we are now encountering the accusations about certain groups of individuals that many will assume were behind the bombing in Boston. In the wake of these recent tragedies, I've found myself remembering lyrics from the song "The Proud" by one of my favorite hip-hop artists, Talib Kweli:

Today the papers say Timothy McVeigh's in hell
So everything's okay and all must be well
I remember Oklahoma when they put out the blaze
And put Islamic terrorist bombing, on the front page
Its like saying only gays get AIDS, propaganda.

While there may be some evidence that suggests that one (or both) brothers involved felt some ties to an extremist Islamic community, the problem lies in the ignorance of many people who then lump all Muslims in with those individuals who represent a tiny minority of a much larger group.

Luckily, there was at least one positive similarity in both tragic incidents, echoed again here by Kweli:

We see the best examples of humanity in the face of the worst
As fire fighters, police officers, rescue workers
And volunteers of all sorts, fight to save lives
The world will never be the same again.

This last line especially rings true. The world hasn't been the same since September 11, 2001. Sadly, the bombings last week at the Boston Marathon certainly won't be the last act of violence and destruction we see. Hopefully, we will continue to find new and better ways to use social media to deal with and respond to such events. Furthermore, hopefully we will remember the courage of the many volunteers, both professional and otherwise, who acted selflessly on September 11th and the days that followed in addition to the countless rescue workers, who along with incredible runners who, after having just finished a marathon, ran straight to the nearest hospital to donate their blood for victims of the explosion. These are the many we need to think of and not the few who seek to undermine such acts of true heroism.