9/11 and Social Media

The dangers and advantages of “social media” in the wake—or the moment—of national disaster, from the Kennedy assassination to the attack on the World Trade Center.

Via Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Katherine Weymouth, publisher of the Washington Post, makes a thought-provoking if odd argument for the supremacy of legacy media over new media (emphasis mine):

Most of us learned about the events of that day in one of four ways — by television, by radio, by newspaper, or by a phone call from a friend. And while we are all incredibly grateful for the ways in which technology has enhanced our lives, I think we are also grateful that we didn’t live through 9/11 with all of that technology.

We didn’t have to see live video footage shot from inside the collapsing buildings and uploaded onto YouTube. Cellphones didn’t have cameras back then. … Can you imagine how horrifying it would have been if we had tweets from the victims on the planes or in the offices, or if they had posted to their Facebook pages?

… Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all the technologies that have yet to be invented make all these events more real, and more horrific. Television pales in comparison.

I think she assumes too much.

I don’t agree, per HuffPo social media editor Mandy Jenkins, that additional information would be useful in this respect: “We’d have known went through the minds of those who chose to jump from the Towers.” That might actually buttress Weymouth’s argument. But I can think of a couple plausible, practical arguments against it.

First, if you read through the 9/11 Commission Report, specifically the preparedness and evacuation analysis, one theme that comes up is the difficulty of communicating information. For instance:

Because of damage to building systems caused by the impact of the plane, public-address announcements were not heard in many locations. For the same reason, many civilians may have been unable to use the emergency intercom phones, as they had been advised to do in fire drills. Many called 911.35

The 911 system was not equipped to handle the enormous volume of calls it received. Some callers were unable to connect with 911 operators, receiving an “all circuits busy” message. Standard operating procedure was for calls relating to fire emergencies to be transferred from 911 operators to FDNY dispatch operators in the appropriate borough (in this case, Manhattan). Transfers were often plagued by delays and were in some cases unsuccessful. Many calls were also prematurely disconnected.36

The problem of emergency communication between authorities and civilians is a theme throughout the report. Which is understandable—as the report notes, within seven minutes the City of New York had to launch the largest search-and-rescue operation in its history in an area of extreme population density, probably as great as anywhere in a dense city. Inter- and intra-authority communications were strained as well. But it also concluded that the inability of civilians to obtain information was a serious problem:

In several ways, the 911 system was not ready to cope with a major disaster. These operators and dispatchers were one of the only sources of information for individuals at and above the impact zone of the towers. The FDNY ordered both towers fully evacuated by 8:57, but this guidance was not conveyed to 911 operators and FDNY dispatchers, who for the next hour often continued to advise civilians not to self-evacuate, regardless of whether they were above or below the impact zones. Nor were 911 operators or FDNY dispatchers advised that rooftop rescues had been ruled out. This failure may have been harmful to civilians on the upper floors of the South Tower who called 911 and were not told that their only evacuation hope was to attempt to descend, not to ascend. In planning for future disasters, it is important to integrate those taking 911 calls into the emergency response team and to involve them in providing up-to-date information and assistance to the public.

One of the better points that Jenkins makes is that AOL instant messaging—remember that?—was, for many, the only way to be in touch with their loved ones. But IM was, and is, bidirectional. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, it’s not a network of people; it’s limited in its distribution, so information travels more slowly over it.

When reading Weymouth’s speech, I thought back to the D.C. earthquake: how, via Twitter, I immediately knew that an earthquake had occurred, and within minutes the location and magnitude. Which made me wonder, though there’s obviously no way of knowing, whether if it had existed on 9/11, social media may have actually been a conduit for good and/or faster information immediately following the attacks.

There are more ifs in that idea than I can count. For starters, the quality of information on one’s Twitter feed is highly dependent on one’s discretion, barring the imposition of some kind of emergency warning system as exists in broadcast media. And cellular networks can be easily overloaded not just in emergencies but anytime lots of people are chatting online and uploading lots of data-hogging photos; I’m pretty sure Lollapalooza caused me to have data-connection problems on its first day this year.

And social media is not only a new technology, it’s evolving quickly (from IM to Twitter is an enormous leap in social and informational complexity), and people aren’t instinctually good at using new technologies in crisis situations. If I was going to make Weymouth’s anti-social-media-on-9/11 argument, my first worry is that it would degrade the quality of the information available, which wasn’t good to begin with. But I tend to be optimistic when it comes to information technologies and their democratization, so I can at least see a possibility for benefit.

Second, I can see it providing a benefit for the historical record. Not about knowing why people jumped from the towers, because, my God. But in the wake of 9/11, media—"social” and professional—played a role in the forensic analysis of the towers’ collapse.

For instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s analysis of the collapse of WTC 7, a flashpoint for truther conspiracies, relies heavily on audio-visual documentation which, since the incident occurred in one of the most technologically sophisticated neighborhoods in the world, was rich:

NIST concluded that blast events did not occur, and found no evidence whose explanation required invocation of a blast event. Blast from the smallest charge [i.e. controlled demolition] capable of failing a single critical column would have resulted in a sound level of 130 dB to 140 dB at a distance of at least half a mile. There were no witness reports of such a loud noise, nor was such a noise heard on the audio tracks of video recordings of the WTC 7 collapse.

One NIST document, “Visual Evidence, Damage Estimates, and Timeline Analysis (Chapters 1-8) Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster", contains the visual material underlying the analysis of the collapse of the WTC towers and WTC 7. It’s a mix of news photography and video, documentation from photo and video professionals, and mere tourist photography, such as Arkansas tourist Carmen Taylor. The “horrific” social and televisual documentation is also a vital trail of evidence. Some of which is absolutely fascinating:

Note that the lines generated by the moiré effect are much further apart than the window spacing on WTC 2. As the building swayed in response to the plane strike, the moiré pattern, in effect, amplified the motion. The motion was characterized through analysis of the points that make up the moiré fringes, which were located for each frame of video using a computer-automated process. Similar analysis of the fixed 22 Cortland Street building allowed subtraction of small camera motions. By utilizing the known center-to-center column spacing of 40 in., it was possible to use the analysis to determine quantitative motions of the tower.

If a video from 9/11 hasn’t succeeded it, I’m assuming that the most-viewed “social media” video in American history is the Zapruder Film. It’s not news footage, Zapruder was just a film buff who happened to be there. But it wasn’t widely viewed until over a decade later; the first network broadcast of the film—in the present day this seems hardly believable—was in 1975, and that was a pirated copy.

The film was unviewable by the general public because Abraham Zapruder struck a deal with Time, Inc. that ensured the company’s full control, in part because Zapruder didn’t want the film to be exploited. But it was, it just took longer. The pirated copy made the rounds of college campuses before it was aired on television. The only visual documents of the Kennedy assassination itself were “social media,” and spread via nonprofessional, social media. It’s just that the technology was more primitive, so there’s less documentation, it’s not as good, and it took longer for people to see it because the distribution channels were also more primitive.

Of all the horrors of the past 50 years, the two biggest “where were you then” moments were the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. The video of one was sat on for 12 years. The video of the other was on constant repeat almost from the instant it happened. I don’t know that one horrified America more than the other (though I may be willing to admit in support of Weymouth’s argument that our reaction the latter, or at least the government’s was more irrational in the medium- to long-term).

Weymouth may very well be right: social media could in fact be more of a curse than a blessing in the event of disaster. But the concerns are just as tangible as they are abstract, and it’s disappointing that the publisher of the Washington Post is more interested in our—or at least her—visceral, emotional reaction than the far-ranging and vital questions that follow the technology itself. Some of which we actually can, and will be forced to, answer.

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3 years ago
Posted by mmjenkin

Hi there. Thanks for referencing my post about social media and 9/11, but it'd be great if you could actually link to it: http://zombiejournalism.com/2011/09/what-if-wed-had-todays-social-media-on-911/

My primary point was not to know what people were thinking on 9/11 per se, but that those people could have communicated whatever they needed. They could have documented their final minutes, they could have said goodbye - and in the process, journalists and law enforcement could have gleaned useful information as to the timeline of events and exactly what happened.

It's an intriguing what if.

3 years ago
Posted by wmoser

My apologies; I seem to have linked to the Poynter thing twice. I've corrected the error.

3 years ago
Posted by MacKenna09

I actually found out about the planes hitting the WTC via Yahoo, and spent the day on message board forums (such as US College Hockey Online)e-mail (to friends in the military), and chat programs (most especially Internet Relay Chat) to find out more about what was going on. So, while social media was not a part of 9/11, the Internet definitely was. It was only after we saw the headline on Yahoo that we turned our TV on, believing it was a small plane and knowing the New York-centric morning shows would be covering it, then finding out that the second plane had made impact.

3 years ago
Posted by LS

I find the idea that people who were compelled to jump from the World Trade Center would have tweeted, blogged or posted to Facebook rather, well, ridiculous.

Really think about it for a moment.

3 years ago
Posted by LS

The idea that people who were compelled to jump from the World Trade Center would have tweeted, blogged or posted to Facebook is rather, well, [substitute your own adjective here].

Really think about it for a moment.

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