THE BLOG
05/23/2013 05:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013

How Technology Has Changed the Way We Understand National Tragedies

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The final entry for the "Blog Blog Project" this semester comes from UD junior Christina Mavrikis, a Criminal Justice and Psychology major, who examines how technology has changed the way we learn about and understand tragedies like the Boston bombings.

I remember sitting in my third-grade class, more than 11 years ago, as different teachers slipped in and out of the room whispering to each other about something they didn't want my classmates and me to know. Naturally, my friends and I became suspicious. As time went on and parents started coming to school to pick up their children for seemingly no reason, we knew something was up. I remember the silent car ride home from school after my mom pulled my little brother and me out of class. I remember getting home and turning on the television only to see images of buildings engulfed in dark smoke and the words, "Planes Crash into World Trade Center" sprawled across the screen. I remember that in the following days, my parents kept their eyes glued to the TV and to The New York Times paper that got delivered to our house daily. At the age of nine, I was old enough to understand the tragedy that was happening and allowed to follow the television coverage of the attacks and the aftermath.

Eleven years from now, I will remember the Boston Bombings tragedy very differently than I now remember the 9/11 attacks. I will remember scrolling through my Twitter news feed after class to see tweets tagged with "#prayforBoston." I will remember turning on the TV to watch the explosions and images of the injured victims. I will remember how I then spent most of that tragic week with my eyes glued to my iPhone, checking for any new information about the cause, the suspects, and the victims. I will remember my boyfriend sending me hyperlinks to 4chan and Reddit threads in the following days that identified possible suspects in pictures of the crowds at the marathon. I will remember receiving "Breaking News" emails with the subject "Boston Bombing Suspect in Police Custody." In 11 years, I will remember feeling the same sadness, fear, and also interest about the Boston bombings as I did with the 9/11 attacks. However, my experience when I was nine and my experience now with media coverage of tragedy are very different. It is strange to think how in just over a decade, so much about how news is covered and how information reaches the public has changed.

Today we have lightning-fast Internet that gives us access to social media websites like Facebook and Twitter and blog and thread-type websites like 4chan and Reddit. We have smartphones that give us access to the Internet anywhere, anytime and apps that bring newspaper headlines right to our screens. And on the more "traditional" television news, we see reporters relying on Twitter feeds as sources and ordinary citizens filling in the gaps where reporters couldn't go.

But it was the search for the suspects in the days following the bombings that perhaps best illustrates the power -- and peril -- of technology. Internet users shared any information they knew about the suspects, whether it was about the death of the first suspect or the search and ultimate capture of the second. The Internet was on constant surveillance of the story; any and all information was gathered from various sources and then distributed through social media, personal blogs, or public group forums. In a way, people sitting behind their computer or cell phone screens took on the role of television newscasters, sharing the news of the tragedy and manhunt to the rest of the public. Reddit, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention since users wrongly identified multiple innocent people as suspects for the bombings. Though forums like these may look like investigative journalism, amateur muckrakers sometimes cross the line. For example, then-missing (and now sadly, found dead) Brown student Sunil Tripathi was initially labeled by some websites to be the sure bomber. This false news spread fast over social media, and ultimately proved to be premature and incorrect speculation, causing much pain to Tripathi's family. Misinformation was rampant on other websites as well, and even made it to the cover of the New York Post, suggesting that "the wisdom of the crowds" may not apply in some situations.

With increasing numbers of Americans owning smartphones and tablets, it is no wonder mobile media has changed the way we access and interact with the news during extraordinary events. The Internet not only makes it easier for people to access information, but also gives the public a chance to communicate and participate directly with news and other citizens. In the aftermath of tragedies like the Boston bombings, it is important to reflect on both traditional news and new technology covered the events so we learn how news is constructed in an ever-evolving mediated world.