Social Media During Terror Attacks: A Tool of Clarity in a Time of Chaos

AP France Paris Shooting
A woman is being evacuated from the Bataclan theater after a shooting in Paris, Friday Nov. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

For many of us, social media is simply a way to talk with friends, share our thoughts, and follow celebrities and organizations we like. But in the event of a terror attack or natural disaster, or even in the midst of war zone, social media is taking on a role that was unimaginable for any medium beforehand. It is becoming a source of news from the people directly involved, even as the attack or disaster is occurring, and it is allowing victims to assure their loved ones of their safety immediately, rather than letting them fret for hours or even days on end. In some of the darkest and most chaotic hours of the last few years, social media has evolved to become a tool of clarity.

A terror attack or natural disaster can be difficult for traditional media to report on, as they can happen half a world away, and any journalists already there may be told little to nothing, and allowed access to even less. But in the recent terror attacks in Paris, it wasn’t camera crews and reporters breaking the news, but victims and bystanders using Twitter to directly inform the world of the tragedy occurring. During the attacks, Parisians tweeted about hearing explosions and gunfire, and the chaos that ensued.

In these instances the news media turns into a conglomerate of tweets, posts, and messages, forming a story for the rest of us to consume. And then by using those same media platforms again, the news stories spread and soon we’re all focused in on the live updates from the site of the tragedy. This level of coverage wasn’t possible for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombings, or even the September 11 attacks; it is a new phenomena.

And because we now live in a world so connected that we can communicate with friends and family on the other side of the country, or even on another continent, in an instant through social media, it is now a primary tool to connect us during these attacks. For example, FaceBook has a “Safety Check” for those in the vicinity of an attack or disaster. No longer do we have to wait for word from embassies or police to hear that our loved ones are safe, but we can know immediately.

So what does all this mean? I won’t say it’s a sign that traditional journalism is inadequate during emergency situations, because these stories wouldn’t be spread without it. Instead I think  that we should expand and improve on the capabilities (filtering out inaccurate/misleading posts,  easier ways to share updates in affected areas, etc.) to provide the most accurate, immediate, and clear information in these chaotic situations.

Daniel Salé


BBC, . Accessed 28 September 2016.

Malachi, Maggie. “Paris Residents’ Tweets From The Shooting Illustrate The Horror Of This Attack.” Bustle, . Accessed 28 September 2016.

Griffin, Andrew. “Brussels attacks: Facebook Safety Check activated following deadly explosions at airport and Metro station.” Independent, . Accessed 28 September 2016.


One thought on “Social Media During Terror Attacks: A Tool of Clarity in a Time of Chaos

  1. All fantastic points. Social media is constantly flooded with celebrity gossip, nonsense personal updates, and funny cat videos; however, it serves a much larger purpose. Social media is an information provider. It can provide crucial information in real time like no other platform. Unfortunately, the biggest challenge for organizations like Red Cross, municipalities like the City of Edmonton, and politicians like Hilary Clinton in this regard, is ensuring the correct information is shared. It will be interesting to see how, and if, social media platforms monitor the accuracy of content in the future.


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