A response to Big Data/Social Media/911

What if 9/11 Had Played out on or with Social Media?

This is a response to the great piece by E Monier-Williams

Big Data, Social Media and 9/11

A thought experiment for those involved in disaster planning

[←8 min Read]

This is a great essay about disaster planning & thinking about all the way in which social media has or can impact crises. What follows below is my response.

Thanks for this thought exercise. My response will be grounded in & framed in one New Yorker’s experience of 9/11 & the subsequent loss of a dear friend Firefighter Sergio “Big Daddy” Villanueva. Many, if not most New Yorker’s had a cell phone that day, penetration was probably near 80%. Many had cameras as well, but probably not quite as many, and the low quality compared to today would be laughable. What wasn’t present was the cloud or social media networks to actually share them instantaneously. Sure you could text/MMS it to someone & people did. So this question intrigued me.

Further to this my comments will be crouched in the September 11th Relief Program by the Red Cross, helping millions of New Yorkers citywide in the months afterwards, which I personally worked for. Aiding them to manage & digitize their decades old anachronistic system into a cloud-based and more forward thinking one.

Also this gave me the opportunity of helping with a conference that the Red Cross did in November 2011, [The Ripple Effect*] for mental health professionals to prepare exactly for just the sort of things your thought exercise is about. Being prepared, for future disasters (pre-social-media), and how to deal with the enormous shock and grief already produced.

There isn’t a single answer to what if social media existed, it did then, but not as we conceive of it now. My dear friend who was lost had a fiance, my best friend, and she (and myself) sent out “updates” via very personal emails. Ones we’ve both kept, and they are a time capsule. Others, the recipients may have lost them, but they responded much like our commenting system now etc…but there was the visceral moments conveying what it was like to live through such a tragedy & have it profoundly affect you. There were also photo-sharing sites like Ofoto, and Microsoft had a community-based experience whose name escapes me. There were also message boards, et al… that surely may exist somewhere. There was a connectivity, but it took on many various forms prior to what we now call social media.

As to the first-responders being able to use social media, not sure that would even be possible today, as a mitigation for or relief to some of the things you discuss. Cell phone towers went down with the collapse, the infrastructure was damaged, and there have been stories told of not being able to make a landline phone call for up to a week in areas that were far uptown & not even affected. Everyone had to use the dominant form of communication to check on & update people. The 8 million people in NYC overloaded what was left of the infrastructure, plus add to that the media empires that were here, and the epicenter of all that information flowing.

When Sandy hit, major communications infrastructure (along with other tertiary elements) were damaged. They didn’t get fully restored for two weeks. While it was happening, and on social media it afforded me a view of the 14th Street Con Ed plant flooding & exploding from a bystander & friend posting to social media. That was the moment, oddly that it dawned on me both the awesome power & responsibility.

They were recording it from the end of their street, which was rapidly becoming flooded, and over the next few days shots of their now ruined basement apartment would follow, but again in that moment it resonated powerfully. Yet in that moment, after the loop played many times, the clock started ticking until he would post again, wondering if he might have been hurt or injured, not by the explosion but from the chaos on the streets after.

This could be related in someway to the falling of the towers on live TV, the news coverage (for Sandy) was quick to swoop in & use this on-the-street reporting from social media (attributed or not) to do what their few camera vans & crews could. So the thoughts on preparing for or what the next catastrophe might look like are both intriguing and terrifying.

Recently a man shot two people dead on live TV and had planned it so that while on the run, evading cops that footage he’d shot on his cellphone, as a first-person-shooter was simultaneously uploaded to both Facebook & Twitter. Within just minutes it was shared & seen by thousands if not millions. For even when the two sites took it down (after self-reportage by outraged people like me) it was already copied by people and made its way around to various sites and is probably still visible in some form. Just as the beheading videos, Black men being shot dead, or Sandra Bland’s interactions are.

The moments of pain & brutality are almost rote now. In the wake of cultural disasters, people wrestling with their intense emotions, and perhaps the low barrier to “publish” these things will do so immediately — consequences are an afterthought. They can simply, delete or have the site block it, but after it has already had its impact, either doing harm or spreading an errant message.

The rise of false flags, ‘truthers’ or others, that make up a statistically marginal yet significant portion are going to want to spin these questionable pieces of citizen journalism (that have not been vetted, processed, or even lawful at times) into whatever scenario they can imagine. All while thinking less critically as a cover for the truth. There is almost a prevalent distrust of the Mainstream media sources, even as it relies more heavily on social media contributions to breaking stories.

As it pertains to the Colorado/Aurora Shooting, that was a night seared into my memory as the best reportage anywhere came from Reddit. There was a running thread that still had more information & reporting than I’ve seen since in the MSM. Including people uploading the flood of scared & confused people rushing out of the theater complex. Jessica’s Ghawi’s image was also made more public, and properly managed enough, in large part to her brother’s social media instincts and vigilance. Her brother Jordan Ghawi immediately took to Twitter & social media, showed up for high-profile media interviews, and helped to cement the fact that her name would be remembered. This was neither an easy task or even seen previously, but was probably part natural response and partly luck.

Since, he has continued to contribute, and remember her. Quickly setting up websites, etc… at that moment were crucial & key to not letting the media narrative warp (or use & dispose of) another victim in a senseless tragedy. This is somewhat easier today, but so it would be for people hoping to spread disinformation, and while I don’t have any recent examples here (and research would take just a bit longer than then urgency I feel to complete this), we can return to the people who used 9/11 for nefarious purposes. Something I’d aided in identifying, for the earliest steps, and know was seen through to prosecution. People claiming to have lost loved ones, and then receiving the benefits, only to be exposed afterwards as having been con-artists.

That is humanity, at its base. Just as people will use any tragedy, or even just a casual notable person’s death to maliciously use the hashtag or trending topic to push their SPAM/linkbait, so too they will carelessly spread misinformation and outright lies to gain greater social media prominence. For them there is no emotional connection, and may never be one. There could also be mental health issues at play by those seeking to gain notoriety by using such tactics. Munchausen-by-Social-Media as it were.

In fact, Exposure Trolling is an offshoot of that, if more nefarious. In today’s climate of social media, we are less shocked, more numb, but yet more versed in how to publish something with a few clicks. Co-opting someone’s grief or using it to our personal gain & purpose is not just sport, it is a business. All too common practice in my estimation as well. If through outrage/shock/grief we get more views to our website, then alas our mission is complete. For many in the newsrooms & editorial divisions of even our biggest outlets are not adept at this new media climate & culture. They are woefully ignorant about how to properly analyze the data, and lacking that, will think that they use social media so they “understand” it. Human biases on full display & then exponentially magnified by hubris.

For them the Big Data portion of it still comes down to the financial transactions, how much revenue, or how much their vanity craves the likes/shares/views, or will all this traffic translate into more money. As content gets reduced down to the most over-simplified, gated, and easily-consumed and easily shared, the rigorous thought processes will naturally be overwhelmed. As I was the night of the Aurora shooting.

As is rightly pointed out in the piece this is a response to — there is a great deal to consider but the speculation in the original is not girded on the infrastructure that makes all of this possible: MOBILE. Hurricane Sandy hitting the New York Tri-State Area proved that even a few years ago, at the time of writing this, that the network can not handle it. That if we’re all reliant on social media to process this, then everyone will not only be sharing there, but will also go there to see. This will overload all the systems, be that the telecommunications structure, or just our senses.

Planning for this or getting these behemoth “utilities” (remember cell phone industry has spent a lot of time making money without being regulated like a utility it is optional!) to actually maintain service — which can be lifesaving & necessary in these circumstances but which is also the very lifeblood of social media & self-reportage from breaking news scenes.

On 9/11 the most searing thing that happened was siting with a bunch of confused people staring into a TV which played the loop of the towers coming down what seemed like a trillion times. Just over & over again, while they prattled on endlessly. All of us lost, not knowing what to say. Still to this day I avoid that footage, and look away, click it off, or filter that. Yet they still come through, still cause me to reflect, and know that we aren’t near prepared for this level of disaster again in our lifetime, and social media is not prepared either. The levels of “self-reporting” the offensive material would be overwhelmed in seconds, and the harm it can do in mere short seconds would be devastating in ways we can not even imagine.

There should be a plan to put a halt to all social media, as draconian as that sounds. For we often forget that the conversations that happen are still by a handful of users, most lurk, and in that lurking would be further traumatized by such unfiltered streams of gargantuan proportion. That in itself would be a great tragedy. Of course that idea is almost absurd, but as an act of preparedness, and real strategy it would probably save more lives in the aftermath.

Of course social media is also the way we “stay connected” with distant friends & relatives now, so there would be the sudden disconnect & the stress that would involve. So on that basic level my solution fails, but again, right now the power remains in the hands of these networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc…) and I can assure you they do not have a plan or strategy that is in any way realistic. Despite their access to all the Big Data in the world, unless they know what they are looking for, and prepared for real-world scenarios with the many municipalities, etc…

That requires a coordination unlike anything we’ve ever had. Facebook alone has a billion “users” and is a country unto itself. A major event would be taken in stride, but honestly would be like nothing they’ve yet previously experienced, and I don’t trust them to “hackathon” their way into a solution. Nor do I trust the Department of Homeland Security to necessarily have either the resources or the know-how to make a relevant plan. They have one, but I’ not sure it won’t be as ill-conceived as their response to events since 9/11 (yes, I’m not so subtly hinting at Katrina).

Surely somewhere in conferences & board rooms someone is preparing for them. However in my rather pragmatic, if oft pessimistic, view it will be like the memo announcing that Bin Laden is intent on striking the US a mere month before.

As a concluding thought, the next “event” of this global proportion may set to strike as a cyber-war, and be played out mostly on social media. That would be the battleground not yet tried, and probably also the most vulnerable. Better minds than ours have surely addressed these issues, and probably even ore thoughtfully. Yet as they average out and consult a vast galaxy of data, and legerdemain a proposal, the fact is we remain woefully vulnerable.

As hopeful reminder to leave everyone with, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 was a wellspring of people doing what was not in their nature. The oft under-reported stories of pitching in, of real humanity & generosity that make all the linkbait we see today look childish. People coming together & helping out for no reason other than we were glad to be alive & appreciated our city, our resilience, and our aching & confused hearts. As long as I live there will not be a more profound event. Today’s “You won’t believe what happened next…” headlines pale in comparison. It reminded me we all do not know what we are capable of until we are actually in this position. Heroism can be running into the South Tower knowing you may not make it out alive, as Sergio did, or it could be in the people who stood for hours along the West Side Highway with placard cheering the recovery workers as they went to do an unimaginable job on top of a smoldering pile of rubble. Many of the are suffering now because of that sacrifice they made, for those that made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet we can’t get the Zadroga act passed in a do-nothing congress to insure our continued support for their failing health.

Were it possible, I’d stand on the side of the road with others now, with placards urging Congress & the American People to do the right thing. For if we can’t follow up on our promises then, how prepared are we for the next one?

**This was simultaneously published on my blog

*The Ripple Effect is mentioned in the PDF Link for the Sept 11th Project