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This April, the sweeping manhunt for those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings concluded with an announcement by the city police department via Twitter. The Westgate shopping mall attack in September revealed how the Nairobi police also utilized Twitter to update the public on developments in the crisis. In fact, according to a 2012 survey, 92 percent of police departments in the United States have adopted some form of communication through social media. Even the Alton Police Department has, like your parents and maybe even your grandparents, created a Facebook page. Unlike the pages of your elderly relations, it has over 6,000 likes.
Social media has also proven to be an addictive venue for artistic expression, connecting with friends and even getting dates. Its power cannot be denied, as it has clearly been woven into the cultural fabric of the world: news stations survey viewers in public opinion polls on Twitter, and job seekers define their “personal brand” on LinkedIn. Even higher education makes use of social networks, as students can graduate with an MBA degree in social media from at least two American universities.
Social media has both positive and negative effects. At the individual level, it has greatly affected how people interact with one another. “I think people spend far too much time on any social media outlet and it’s how they communicate now. They don’t call people anymore, they just post on Facebook or Tweet it, so I feel like we’ve lost touch with personal communication,” freshman Ashley Wray said.
Privacy is also a constant concern in an age where personal information is freely accessible via a simple Google search.
On a bigger scale, it has put even more at stake, due to the fact that monitoring sites for legitimate and/or dangerous content is an enormous process. For example, during the Westgate attack, Twitter was flooded with false government accounts posting misleading information. Thus, it had to validate the official police accounts giving real information, which took a long time. This was confusing, especially in the midst of the devastation wreaked on the mall and its patrons.
Along with the successes of the police’s involvement with social media in both the Marathon bombing and the Westgate attack, there has also been an unfortunately large misuse of social media. Surveillance photos of marathon spectators were posted online, with the intention of using crowdsourcing to find the at-large suspects. A photo of a young man circulated on the social news site Reddit and generated a vast amount of speculation on his identity as a bomber due to his comparative looks to an officially-released photo.
The man had been missing, and his family was interviewed by news stations. The publicity perpetuated the speculation of his involvement in the bombings, adding an immense amount of negative attention to the family who was already in a time of difficulty. No connection was ever found, but several weeks after the real perpetrators were taken into custody, his body was uncovered, and the suspicions put to rest after much heated debate.
Imagine how impossible it is to shun social media in its entirety, especially after having been exposed to it. Many have tried to eschew it, though the number of new users continues to grow. Now think of how the future generations who won’t have a choice. If social media sustains its dominating force, users present and future will have to consider the ramifications that come with it.