Since its foundation in March 2006, Twitter has grown from a social networking website to the most up-to-date news source around today. In just seven years, it has attracted over 200 million users, including celebrities, civilians, politicians and news sources.
A survey from YouGov.com revealed that a third of all Americans had heard about the Boston bombings within half an hour, and half the country knew of them within the hour. This is down to social networks, especially Twitter, quickly breaking and spreading news of the blasts. Within moments of the blast, both citizen journalists and news organizations alike were spreading images and news of the blast across Twitter, and #PrayforBoston quickly emerged as a trending topic.
The news that bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been caught and was held in custody didn’t come through a press conference announcement or through a dispatch over a police scanner, but through two Tweets from the Boston Police Department (Boston_Police). The first read “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info”, and the second “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice is won. Suspect in custody”. An article on BusinessWeek (businessweek.com) highlights how the Boston Police department has been investing in its social media presence for years over Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, publishing information in the local population’s interest since 2009. Thus, from the moment the Tsarnaev brothers bought global attention to Boylston Street, the Boston Police Department were poised to communicate as much accurate information as possible with the general public.
The quick spread of news during the Boston bombing was not an isolated incident where Twitter has triumphed as a news source. For years, it has become more prevalent in breaking news.
A paper by Philip Johnson and Sung-Un Yang attempts to explain the popularity of Twitter as a news source through the “Uses and Gratifications” theory, which claims that individuals seek out specific media to satisfy specific needs. A quote from Meyrowitz in this paper claims that members of the Twitter audience “are not passive recipients of or reactors to media stimuli; rather they are purposive and conscious selectors of messages that fulfill personal needs (such as ‘keeping in touch with important events’ or ‘escape from boredom’)”. This explains why Twitter is such a great tool for breaking and disseminating news; users see a story, and react to it by posting about it or re-tweeting the original post.
However, not everyone agrees that Twitter is such a great tool for breaking news. An article from the American Journalism Review claims that Twitter did not break stories like the death of Osama Bin Laden and singer Amy Winehouse. Using the example of Whitney Houston’s death, AJR argues that Tweeters began talking about her death at 4:02 p.m., but it wasn’t until The Associated Press announced the news of her death at 4:57p.m. that the Twitterverse began talking about it on a huge scale, taking “Whitney Houston” tweets from below ten to around 2.5 million by 6p.m.
But arguably, breaking news on Twitter is different in cases that directly involve citizens. The Boston bombings involved high numbers of civilians, who were closer to the action than the majority of established media outlets and were able to spread news and images quickly. There are a number of dangers on relying on civilian journalists – they are not always a reliable or accurate source of information, and sometimes lack professionalism. In the past, Twitter has spread rumors, lies and incorrect information, for instance the allegations that the French President and Nicolas Sarokzy and his wife had been involved in adulterous affairs in 2010, and false news that Proposition 8 had been overturned in 2009. Most recently, the confusion over the nationality of the Boston bombers caused unnecessary Twitter anger towards Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, because some users did not understand the difference between these locations and Chechnya.
In the future, I expect that we will see Twitter continue to triumph in civilian-related news events. While news sources, particularly CNN, were slow to spread accurate information, civilians were quickly spreading news and pictures from the Boston bombings. There is a danger in outright trusting unknown news sources, but in some cases, Twitter is becoming a leading news source.
“Uses and Gratifications of Twitter: An Examination on User Motives and Satisfaction of Twitter Use”, Philip R Johnson & Sung-Un Yang (August, 2009)
“The Twitter Death Epidemic”, Barb Palser, American Journalism Review (February/March 2012)