Crises Tracking on Twitter: The Benefits –and Dangers– of New Media

Yesterday morning, on a slow Sunday, I was witness to yet another disaster being reported from first hand sources on Twitter. This has reoccured for the small explosion at Times Square last year, Earthquake in China, Bombings in India, Fires in L.A., and now a propane factory exploding in Toronto.

When I tweeted that “BREAKING: @photojunkie citizen journalist has pics and video of Toronto explosion, BEFORE press story http://tinyurl.com/6rke9q” I was acting like an amplifier. Some reporters follow me and it quickly was swept into the LATimes blog, and I was contacted in email by a Canadian newspaper, who I sent to Photojunkie, a real source, as I was not.

Of course, this leads to some risks: 1) Sources may panic, and over or under state the situation. 2) Determining who is a credible source is a challenge, 3) Echos from the online network may over pump or mis state very important facts that could impact people’s safety. How did I know that Photojunkie wasn’t lying? I don’t. I did however first review his site, his history on Twitter, and saw his pictures and videos before pointing to them.

Key Takeaways

  • The new News Wire is now Twitter, the “Twire”?
  • News continues to break from first hand sources, in the past, the press would break the stories.
  • The jobs of the press are both easier and harder: They’ve improved access to sources in real time, but the level of noise has increased.
  • Press and Media must monitor Twitter: we’ve never seen information break as fast as this.
  • Press still have a very important role: vetting out what’s true and false to the best of their ability.
  • The community (myself included) must be mindful of what’s real and what’s not, over hyping or spreading false information could impact lives.
  • Emergency response teams and local municipalities should monitor the online chatter, just as they do emergency short wave channels.
  • Below are some shocking videos that were taken, warning, there is harsh language, and some of this is very frightening, imagine being woken up in the middle of the night, the cause unknown, I can imagine how scary this is.


    Toronto Explosion from photojunkie on Vimeo.
    Above Video from Photojunkie, you can hear the individual propane tanks explode. We later learned from the newspaper the star that “propane tanks dropping from the sky


    Above Video (Language, Scary): This YouTube Video (already seen 59,000 times) has some cursing, so be careful when playing at work. The reaction and shaky scene isn’t out of the next Cloverfield movie, but it has the same scary intensity of first person recordings. In the past, news teams would have to interview these witnesses, now we see for ourselves through their eyes. There’s no way a journalist could truly report the shockwave and people’s reaction, if pictures tell a thousand words, what do videos tell? (video found on Dave Fleet’s site)

    • Paul Acosta

      Jeremiah, you’re right about the noise. But it’s not only affecting the media but I’d say probably the society as a whole. How many news channels we have now? Just looking at a TV listing scares the soul out of me: News at 5, News at 6, News at 11… then on top of that you have CNN, CNBC, FOX, ABC… and as if it wasn’t enough, you have those that filter the news ONE MORE TIME before you go to bed like “Nightly News”. I’m glad to have my own little news channel composed of my network that like you filter those news for us and I don’t have to go and spend countless hours finding them by myself. Thanks again!

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    • Being in Toronto (although far away from the blast) I heard about this initially on the radio, which I habitually have playing on Sunday morning while I sip coffee and read the paper — very old media! I found within a couple of minutes, I had the local 24 hour news station on my TV and my browser open to multiple tabs, including Twitter, a couple of local news sites, and a couple of local blogger sites including Photojunkie.

      What I thought was most interesting with this emerging story was that that NO single source had what could be called the “definitive” version of the story. Photojunkie and others had different angles of video and photos, as did the TV news. Radio had a live interview with the mayor, and details of transit and street closures. News websites had maps of the effected area and hotline numbers to call. All had some degree of speculation and ‘best availible’ information given their location and ability to learn more. Even today, as new pieces of the story are emerging, I find myself turning to multiple sources.

      What this really highlights for me is what has always been the case — no one source of information, be it traditional or social media, should be trusted as having THE story. The story exists a pieces of a puzzle. For those of us who want to view a more complete a picture from that puzzle, we must work to put the pieces together.

      Media literacy and critical thinking have been important skills for many years, and this is more true today than ever before.

      Great post Jeremiah, thanks!

    • I have noticed that I obtain my news updates from Twitter quicker than I do from regular news outlets. One has to be careful that the news is correct before forwarding to others so I do agree that you have to have reliable sources.

      When I hear about a news alert, I always wait until I get a tweet from my reliable sources before forwarding on to my followers.

      Thanks for writing this post because it is very timely.

      Kim Beasley
      http://KimBeasley.com
      http://ProMembershipServices.com

    • I regularly get “breaking news” now on Twitter before traditional media outlets. The news of Heath Ledger’s death, comes to mind. I saw a handful of Tweets about it that were a good 5-10 minutes ahead of Google News and CNN.

      Kim is also right on when she notes that just because news is out there, it’s not necessarily true. On Twitter, we (meaning those of us who aren’t journalists) don’t have the same inherent responsibility — or pressures — that journalists do to confirm the veracity of a news item before reporting it. Still, I like Kim’s approach of trying to get confirmation of the truth before spreading the story on to her followers.

    • Bryan

      We have to ask though, is faster really ‘better’? I’d suggest that reporters and press can offer better quality of communication than some first-hand witnesses, that is afterall their training and job.

    • Jeremiah: I generally agree with you — and that’s part of what I was trying to imply in the second part of my comment about Kim’s remarks.

      It’s journalists’ paid *job* to get the story right. Of course, they’re fighting the double pressure of getting the story right and publishing it as quickly as possible. And as you know, it’s often the second challenge that can compromise the first.

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    • Trisha Jackson

      Great topic of discussion. I fell into a situation that could have been bad last week. I saw, on Twitter, a local TV station report that a robbery had occurred in a branch of a bank my friend oversees. I immediately called her and she said that there was no robbery. The address given was actually to a retail store in the same plaza but the situation was not what it seemed.

      I relied on the media as a credible source to the story when, in fact, they had it wrong to begin with. I’m glad I didn’t re-tweet to start commotion.

    • Consider the electronic community the same as any other social community where gossip, fact and fiction flow from point to point, with each person responsible for verifying the source and making the decision of whether or not to pass along the-tales-as-told. Sometimes we add in a little spin, or hearsay, sometimes we squash the rumor with repudiation… sometimes we ignore the truth. we are recreating our “selves” in the virtual electronic global community.

    • Great Post. The emergence of TWIRE as a source for potential breaking news is very real. I recently tweeted the southern California earthquake 20 seconds after it happened.

      Twitter has Velocity not accuracy. Reporters need to verify what is news and what is speculation/personal opinion.

      The lines are getting blurred for how people learn about breaking news.

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    • fermata

      no mention of Russia/Georgia conflict here. That was the only real “crisis” this weekend. Do people in warring regions have internet access? No twitter, no love?

    • fermata

      A dang good point. I saw online twitter discussions about the news, but no first hand tweets. And if they were, would they be in English?

    • Do we HAVE to be so arrogant about declaring everything posted to Twitter 2.4 milliseconds BEFORE anything?

      Let’s just assume it’s totally normal at this point, that some pockets of the internet and various web software will be able to help people on the ground broadcast front-line reports. Post it, and move on to the situation and help everyone stop marveling over the tools.

      Besides, we’re probably waiting for CNN to land anyway, so our heroism using TWITTER (or any New Shiny) will be fleeting.

    • …but then Eric what will we have to talk about? 😉

      Seriously, point taken, but this isn’t shiny to me, I’ve been using it heavily for over 1.5 years.

    • Great post, Jeremiah, especially Key Takeaways. Lot of food for thought.

      Interesting points re getting news on Twitter first, especially Bryan’s comment (#5). I see that, too. What’s interesting to me, though, is who is breaking the news on Twitter. I see that mostly from reporters and other mainstream media folk who use Twitter.

      So breaking news is still mostly the media doing it but via this new ‘Twire.’

    • Thanks Neville. I see first person folks breaking news, savvy press folks will have a keyword setup for different terms like ‘breaking, explosion, earthquake, arrest’ etc.

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    • Julia

      Misinformation is dangerous, but officials and the media do it all the time – mostly deliberately.

      This link is to an INFORMATION EXCHANGE community for those concerned about potential FUTURE dangers related to this incident (whether accidental or deliberate – as none of us yet know). There is information here that, though in the media, most people are not aware of, and we encourage you to share whatever you know, so that we can all be as informed as possible.

      Please consider participating – each one of us DOES HAVE the potential to make a difference!

      http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=23478054063
      OR
      http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=23478054063&ref=mf

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    • Jack Johnson

      Twitter, as any disruptive technology (or service) that comes up, has its benefits and dangers, as you very well mention.

      As this article mentiones, history tends to repeat itself. And as it happened with Friendster, Twitter’s fate is doomed. I don’t completely agree with that, but it does bring some interesting points. Is there a sustainable first-to-market advantage with this types of services?

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    • I read the title of your article and paused for a moment. I’d never really thought about social media being used this way, but you are completely correct. This fast paced, high tech resources are keeping us up to date on the latest crisis and breaking news, no matter how far away. This opens up a whole new avenue for people to really follow what’s happening in the world. However, I agree that some do not know how to decipher between what’s real and what’s not. It is important to look closely at the information you look across to make sure it’s a credible source and someone isn’t just misleading you, crying wolf in a world already full of chaos and crisis. I really liked this article, keep them coming!

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    • akshay

      It is not only about updating your profile but catching up fast with followers so that you do not loose them out…
      Know the big brands leveraging twitter for their business
      http://www.redalkemi.com/blog/twitter-big-brands/

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