Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Emergency Response to the Boston Marathon Bombings: Looking to Social Media for Information, Resources, and Connections

Boston is my second home.  I lived there for 6 years.  I went to school there.  I made some of the best friends of my life there.  I got married there.  I spent many Marathon Mondays along the race route cheering for friends, colleagues, and absolute strangers.  As many have reported on the news, Marathon Monday is the best day of the year in Boston and you have to experience it to truly understand its excitement and feeling of community.

I am absolutely heartbroken about yesterday's bombing at the Marathon.  In tears, I sat and watched the news alone in my home.  However, I did not feel alone.  As news broke, I quickly connected with Boston friends via text and social media to make sure they were okay.  Many had been watching at various points along the route.  I also connected with public health colleagues to follow the news and to catalog resources and information being deployed to my friends in Boston and also to those of us watching from home.

As with Hurricane Sandy last November, I think it is important to document all the ways that social media is being used to disseminate information and support public health and emergency management.  Here are the key themes that I saw:

Immediate Public Safety Concerns and Instructions

With the #tweetfromthebeat hashtag, Boston Police communicated regularly with twitter followers, instructing marathon spectators to clear the area around the finish line and refrain from congregating in large crowds.


To assist with the investigation, Boston Police and FBI are asking all spectators and eyewitnesses to submit video and photos taken at the finish line.  This message has been widely disseminated via social media.

Reconnecting Runners, Spectators, and Resources

As we have seen with emergency management of natural disasters, social media and technology play a critical role in reconnecting victims with their families and friends.  For example, the following resources were quickly deployed on social media:

Resources for Journalists

Along with tweets from respected news organizations and reporters reminding each other not to speculate early on in the investigation, there were also formal resources circulated regarding how to effectively cover such a story.  For example, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma offers comprehensive resources on the reporting of disasters and terrorist attacks.  A resource focusing specifically on the Boston Marathon bombings was tweeted out:

Mental Health & Support Resources

Many public health professionals linked to resources to support those in distress following the bombings and/or those who needed help communicating about the events (e.g., discussing it with children).

HHS Secretary Sebelius tweeted about federal disaster resources:

Philadelphia (like many other cities) tweeted about local disaster resources:

Massachusetts General Hospital and other organizations tweeted out tips for discussing the Boston Marathon bombings with children:

As I discussed in my coverage of Sandy, the power of social media also brings challenges to public health and emergency management.  We have seen some early postings about the lessons learned from this event- which does include a discussion of concerns such as rumors spreading rapidly on social media.  For example, it was first reported that cell coverage in Boston was being turned off so that additional bombs could not be detonated remotely.  We later learned that information was not true.  The cell service was slow or not operational due to the extreme overload of users trying to communicate simultaneously.  There was also a lot of concern about very disturbing images of the crime scene and victims being shared on social media.

So there is much to learn about the use of social media for public health and emergency management through close examination of this event and others.  In any case, it is very clear that social media needs to be a part of every organization's disaster and response plan. 

Tell me what you think:
  • What was your impression of the use of social media by federal/state/local organizations yesterday after the Boston Marathon bombings?  
  • Can you share additional examples of how it was used effectively?  
  • What did you see that concerned you?


  1. Great coverage, Leah. Really great overview. Thanks for collecting all of these resources in one place.


  2. The use by official sources was very good. With only a few minor exceptions, their information was timely and accurate. Part of me thought, "What are you doing tweeting? Get out there and help!" But that was the older me, the one that still lives in an era where using social media was frowned upon. I know now that they have people fully dedicated to this.

    Like you wrote, I was concerned about the pictures and videos coming out and being too gruesome. I wish people would have been more judicious in tagging pictures as #NSFW-like or #discretion or something.

  3. I have done extensive research on this issue and can appreciate these issues.  However, after analyzing these issues I realized how big of a problem this is in some areas though.  I decided to pursue this topic in my MPH Degree program for my thesis.  Thanks for the update.